Saturday, March 29, 2014

5 Reasons I Gave 'The Mindy Project' A Second Chance

My blogger friend Kim and I usually follow the same rule when it comes to watching a new television series. We like to call this particular rule “The Three Episode Test.” Since there are usually so many new shows during the fall and spring, we can only devote so much time and effort to a show in order to gauge whether or not it is worth pursuing long-term. Brooklyn 99 and Trophy Wife are series that I applied this test to this season and given the plethora of shows on the air, I decided to drop them after finishing the third episode. That’s not, of course, to say that the shows are bad. They’re comedies that I simply could not become invested in after three episodes. And if I’m not invested after three episodes, there’s little to no chance that I’ll be invested in ten or twenty.

Kim and I both gave The Mindy Project the Three Episode Test in its first season and I’ll be the first to admit that after three episodes, I dropped the show like a hot potato. It wasn’t clicking for me, and though I had found the pilot to be funny but slightly cringe-worthy in how grating, immature, and self-centered Mindy Lahiri was, I could not continue watching. Here’s what separates a good show from a great show though when it comes to the Three Episode Test: a good show will continue to work with what it has going for them; a great show will recognize its flaws, flatten them out, and re-work the characters, if necessary, in order to be the best it can be.

And The Mindy Project is the only show in recent memory that I have extended a second chance to because of this reason. It seems to me that this series found out (just like New Girl did with Jess’ quirkiness in the first few episodes) that it did not have to exaggerate Mindy’s qualities, nor did it have to exaggerate the qualities of the other supporting characters. The show found its footing when it humanized the Shulman Women’s Health Associates characters rather than turning them into caricatures and archetypes. I am now proud to say that I am a fan of The Mindy Project – I love each of these characters and their quirks and habits; I love that I empathize with Mindy and want to be her best friend; and I love so much that the show allows these characters to be weird and wacky and wonderful.

So below the cut, I outlined five major reasons as to why The Mindy Project got a second chance from me and why I’m so very grateful that it did.*

*none of the following GIFs are mine because I'm talented in other ways!

5. The 'ship' did not feel forced, but occurred organically.

I won’t lie to you: the major reason I became reinvested in The Mindy Project was because I saw a post on Tumblr that had to do with Danny and Mindy as a couple. I pondered the idea of the pairing and decided to give the series another shot, starting with a full viewing of “Santa Fe.” Obviously I fell in love after that and rewatched a majority of the first season and then the entire second season. I really and truly admired how much the show developed both Danny Castellano and Mindy Lahiri as characters. They grew from clashing forces to friends to romantic prospects and the entire process felt organic and natural, rather than force-fed, which is so rare to find in a sitcom these days. Mindy Kaling and Chris Messina have discussed the chemistry between these two characters, most recently at their Paleyfest panel. They noted how they played off Chris Messina’s natural, unscripted moments as an actor (for instance, whenever Danny and Mindy are in a scene where they cross a street, Danny places a hand on the small of her back, etc.). I love when television shows recognize the natural chemistry that exists between the actors and characters rather than forcing moments that do not exist.

Danny and Mindy work so well as a romantic pairing because they’re seeming polar opposites. But it’s that tension and that chemistry that somehow draws each person to the other. They complement each other well, too. It’s not as much that Danny and Mindy better one another, but that they balance each other out – he grounds her and she softens him. Their individual quirks and eccentricities and oddities seem to somehow mesh together: one persons is not better or more stable than the other and neither is trying to “fix” the other person. Perhaps THAT is what I adore most of all. Danny and Mindy are always on equal footing and because of that, I think they see more eye-to-eye than they realize.

(Also they have insane chemistry together. Did I mention that? They do. And that is why I love them and The Mindy Project.)

4. It developed good heart and substance.

The first time I cried while watching The Mindy Project was at the end of “Music Festival” during the Casey and Mindy breakup. It’s the GIF above that really pulled at my heart because in that moment I saw a side of Mindy Lahiri that I had never seen before – complete and total vulnerability. She was utterly broken and that, in turn, broke me. We’re so used to seeing Mindy as this tough, takes-no-nonsense but compassionate doctor. It’s very rare that we get to see her emotional over something of substance, and this was the first time that I realized – upon watching the series – that it had the capability to surprise its viewers by punching them emotionally in the gut.

This team of writers is so talented at writing witty and snappy dialogue; they do a fantastic job of finding the comedy in every character and situation. One of the most difficult things for a comedy to do, of course, is become “serious.” You risk falling into the territory of oversentimentality and cliché. You also run the risk of undercutting the significance of emotion by misplacing or mistiming comedic moments to follow. But watching the end of “Music Festival” was refreshing because that moment remained true to Mindy as a character, true to the theme of the show, and injected a dose of emotion to a show that is usually is so full of lighthearted wackiness.

And I absolutely and positively loved the writers for that beautifully understated but powerful moment that reminded me how much heart this show had in it.

3. The secondary characters received more focus.

Every character on The Mindy Project is insane.

Don’t get me wrong: that insanity is PERFECT. But what I love so much about this show is that there’s no true “straight man.” Most comedies have these characters – the ones who observe everyone’s behavior and comment on it; those who are without oddities or quirks – but not The Mindy Project. From Betsy and Jeremy to Peter and Danny, to Morgan, Beverley, and Tamra… everyone is nuts. Betsy is sweet and seemingly naïve but she’s also got a weird, partially-dark side to her. Tamra is sassy and outspoken, Peter and Morgan are basically man-children. Danny has own set of strange and hilarious quirks (including his righteous indignation over certain things) and though Jeremy appears to have it all together as their “straight man leader”… this is the guy who ate an entire gingerbread house, remember?

What makes this show endearing and delightful is the fact that no character on it REALLY has their life completely together. And that’s great because, well, we don’t either. And we don’t feel like we should in order to relate to these wonderfully messed up and hilarious individuals. I love that The Mindy Project has given ample time, especially in its second season, to the relationship between Mindy and her co-workers. These are people that she truly and honestly cares about and spends a lot of time with, so it makes sense that the show would focus on them as they relate to her life. But what I really enjoy is that we get to see WHO these people are: we meet Jeremy’s father and see how that relationship has shaped him into the character we know; we learn about Peter’s devastating breakup and, in turn, why he acts the way he does. We get to the root of Danny and Christina’s issues and understand how he became the man that he is, too. I love that this show really delved not only into the comedy of the characters but also their backstories; in doing so, it allows us to understand their relationship to Mindy and the characters around them.

And that, dear readers, is part of the reason this series made it back onto my list.

2. The show found its niche in pairing the actors to their comedic talents, as well as pairing unexpected characters together.

Not every actor is gifted comedically in the same way as another. Lines delivered by Mindy Kaling sound different than if they would be read by Zooey Deschanel or Alison Brie or Amy Poehler. And that’s perfect because these women are hilarious in their own right: whether it is the emphasis they place on a phrase, their facial expression while delivering that phrase, or their body language, these comedians know where their strengths are and they play to them in whatever project they’re a part of. What’s so great about The Mindy Project is that it realizes that the comedy of Ike Barinholtz is different than the comedy of Chris Messina: what makes Ike so hilarious is the Andy Dwyer-esque way he delivers a line or his knack for physical comedy; what makes Chris Messina funny is the endearingly curmudgeonly way he drawls a word or phrase with that New York accent. No two actors are the same and in realizing where the comedic strengths and weaknesses are, writers can ensure that their characters are the funniest, most well-rounded ones that they can be.

With an ensemble series, it’s also not just important to find the comedy behind each actor and cater to their strengths, but it’s also integral to mix and match the actors in order to determine where chemistry lies – it’s why Danny and Mindy work so well as a pairing (not romantically but also comedically) and it’s why an episode like “You’ve Got Sext” was so hilarious because it paired Peter and Morgan together in what was one of the greatest and funniest storylines this season. Characters don’t often need to balance one another out comedically in order to work – you don’t need a straight man and a goofball or an optimist and a pessimist. You can have Peter and Morgan, two insanely goofy but well-intentioned guys, together in a story and it works because you spend the entire episode laughing hysterically at their hijinks and wondering exactly how they’ll manage to get themselves out of a situation that has gone totally and completely awry. Apart, Morgan and Peter are lovable and funny, but together they are comedic gold. They’re like Lucy and Ethel.

… Sort of.

1. Mindy Lahiri evolved from a slightly grating female lead to an endearing and sympathetic one, worthy of “BFF” envy.

When the show began, the biggest issue I had with it was the characterization of its central character Mindy Lahiri. I found her to be cringe-worthy and unrealistic, much like I found the characterization of Jessica Day in the first few episodes of New Girl to be unrealistic (“No one is THAT weird,” I reasoned to myself) and the characterization of Michael Scott to be quite unrealistic in the first few episodes of The Office ("No one is THAT offensive and dense," I argued). It wasn’t that Mindy Lahiri was a bad character, to be honest: it was that her eccentricities were amplified a bit too much, making her unrelatable to me as a viewer. “I would have unfriended this woman a long time ago,” I remember thinking as I watched the episode “In the Club.”

But soon, those qualities began to shrink back and Mindy’s true personality and comedy were able to shine through those cracks. She became not only relatable (basically everything out of her mouth these days, I find myself thinking “GPOY” to), but because she’s become relatable, she’s also become DESIRABLE. We all want to be Mindy Lahiri’s best friend. (I wouldn’t mind being Mindy Kaling’s as well, while we’re at it). She’s intelligent, but not pretentious. She’s extremely relatable when it comes to wanting her life to become a romantic comedy, her opinions on food, or her comments about pop culture. She’s the representation of a modern woman, which is what she should be. Audience members should watch the series and feel the need to root for Mindy Lahiri: they should want her to find love and be happy; they should laugh when she laughs and cry when she does. A good heroine is someone who not only inspires and motivates but who also fills a void in our lives we didn’t know existed – we need to feel close enough to her that if we passed her on the street on a Saturday morning, we’d invite her to brunch.

What the writers and producers learned, I believe, is that you can make a character eccentric and lively and fun while still making her relatable. The trick is to create a character that has enough quirks to make her (or him) unique, but not so many that it makes her/him unrelatable. And I think The Mindy Project has absolutely nailed this in the character of Mindy Lahiri, as well as in every other character on the series. That is the main reason that I gave this show a second chance, too. When I was able to watch the sitcom and feel like I not only related to, but also wanted to BE around Mindy as a character, the show became something special to me.

I’m really glad that I extended a second chance to The Mindy Project, as it has now climbed its way onto my list of favorite network sitcoms. Though the Three Episode Test is often a good indicator of how well or poorly a show will do, it is not the ONLY indicator. Sometimes shows and characters and writers and actors surprise you and they actually get better after three episodes. Sometimes you need to put aside those initial prejudices and embrace what a series has become, rather than what it started out as. And you know what? I’m so glad that this show wasn’t the one that got away.

Speaking of: be sure to watch the special one-hour premiere of The Mindy Project next Tuesday night (April 1st) at 9 PM! I’m sure excited for it to return and you should be too. :)


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