Just as your feelings about “New Girl” depend mostly on your feelings about Zooey Deschanel, you will dislike Fox’s “The Mindy Project” if you aren’t a fan of Mindy Kaling. The actress-writer-producer from “The Office” and best-selling author of “Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns)” has created and written and produced a show very much in her own image.
I like Kaling — she could effortlessly hijack any moment she wanted to on “The Office,” as the terminally superficial Kelly Kapoor — and I find enough promise in her new sitcom to want to see more of it. Despite a few flaws, “The Mindy Project” could evolve into an interesting hybrid, an anti-romantic-comedy romantic comedy.
On the show, which premieres Tuesday night at 9:30 on Channel 25, Kaling plays Dr. Mindy Lahiri, a talented OB/GYN whose private life needs all kinds of work. That’s the project of the title. Mindy idolizes romantic comedies, some of which, such as “When Harry Met Sally” and “Pretty Woman,” she knows line by line. She wants to be a Sandra Bullock character. But those movies have left her with impossible, unrealistic fantasies. She keeps reflexively screwing up her relationships with every man in her life. She wants to find the right guy, but she has a long list of requirements, some of which she addresses during a date tonight with a nice guy played by guest star and “Office” mate Ed Helms. She has been ruined by “Notting Hill.”
The show drops us right into the mess that is Mindy. She gets arrested after drinking too much at her ex-boyfriend’s wedding, shaming him from the stage, and then riding her bicycle into a pool. At the bottom of the pool, she has an extended vision: She sees a Barbie doll, who speaks to her: “If you don’t pull it together,” Barbie says, “no one will ever love you.” The vision sobers her up, but for how long? What is distinctively Kaling about the scene is Barbie’s tart little zinger: “At least I have a boyfriend,” she says to Mindy, about Ken. That’s the kind of little catty throwaway that Kaling does so well.
I enjoy the way Kaling is so willing to be unappealing — and I don’t mean just physically. While Deschanel plays a pretty, delicate dork, Kaling plays a raging, rage-filled dork. She isn’t vain or overtly concerned about how she comes off, in the manner of so many sitcom stars on network TV. Like Lena Dunham of HBO’s “Girls,” she’s more interested in presenting a self-conscious woman who isn’t always sympathetic, who struggles with some of the uglier facets of human behavior. It’s refreshing.
The secondary characters on “The Mindy Project,” alas, aren’t quite up to par. Chris Messina plays the macho Dr. Danny Castellano, who may be secretly attracted to Mindy. Messina is often good — he’s Jane Fonda’s creepy son on “Newsroom” and he was Claire’s boyfriend at the end of “Six Feet Under” — but his character is confusingly written in the pilot. He’s kind of nasty, with serious masculinity issues, but then I think we’re supposed to think he’s a good guy, too. There’s still time to define him, as well as the doctor who is his polar opposite, a charming Brit named Jeremy (Ed Weeks) who likes to hook up with Mindy. With some work, Mindy’s hospital colleagues, including a secretary named Betsy (Zoe Jarman) who irrationally worships Mindy, could take on a more “Scrubs”-like ensemble feel.
Meanwhile, though, there is enough here to play around with and to perfect. Like its heroine, “The Mindy Project” is a work in progress.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Matthew