Television

Buzzsaw

‘The Mindy Project’ is subverting genres

Chris Messina and Mindy Kaling in “The Mindy Project.”
Adam Taylor/FOX
Chris Messina and Mindy Kaling in “The Mindy Project.”

I’ve fallen kind of in love with “The Mindy Project,” and I’ve fallen kind of in love with the character Mindy Lahiri, all of which means I’ve fallen kind of in love with Mindy Kaling.

There’s something uniquely subversive about the three of them, as they giddily challenge all sorts of social and cultural expectations.

Even now that “The Mindy Project” has its heroine knocked up — usually the sitcom equivalent of running on fumes — I have no fear that the show will manage to make pregnancy and a baby funny. No one is going to do mommy humor like Mindy, beginning with the twist that, despite both she and her boyfriend Danny being OB/GYNs, she accidentally got pregnant. That’s a risky choice for a network sitcom, by the way, especially since the characters are meant to be smart and responsible. But “The Mindy Project” refuses to hold up Mindy and Danny as any kind of unswerving role models.

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When the Fox show sets up conventional expectations, it’s usually to defy them. Just when you think it’s is a nice network sitcom about an intelligent, affable single woman looking for love and forming a workplace family in the city, an update of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” it reminds you it isn’t. Rather than pulling a Ross-and-Rachel, for example, and stringing out the Mindy-Danny affair across many seasons and many breakup-makeups like most sitcoms, “The Mindy Project” got the couple together relatively quickly. And now, also quickly, before the end of season three, Mindy is pregnant.

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The show repeatedly feints toward being a classic romantic comedy, the kind of story that both Lahiri and Kaling openly worship. As I write, Kaling’s Twitter page features a large still from Emma Thompson’s “Sense and Sensibility,” and it’s not some kind of ironic statement about women and/or bonnets. At times, Mindy Lahiri has an almost innocent twinkle in her eye. But then “The Mindy Project” can be downright crude — joyously, cleverly crude. I’m not referring to the fact that we’ve seen Mindy in bed with a number of guys. Dirty jokes just keep flying out of Mindy’s mouth, not least of all during a cleverly written episode from last fall about Danny’s attempt at anal sex. The idea of pretty romance is nice, the show seems to be saying again and again, but the reality involves bodily functions and humiliating situations and sexual awkwardness.

Mindy Lahiri is really hard to pin down, which is refreshing. She doesn’t fit into any one of the types we often see on network sitcoms, including the cutesy-quirky “New Girl” sort or the Cool Girls who, as described in Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl,” can be like just one of the guys (as long as they’re hot). She’s not any one of the “Sex and the City” ladies, as she isn’t obsessed with having a glossy-magazine-ad body. She’s not like Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope on “Parks and Recreation,” an everyday saint, and she’s not like Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon on “30 Rock,” clueless and passive.

She can be a little like all of them sometimes, but ultimately she’s her own bundle of contradictions. In many ways, she’s one of the most disagreeable sitcom heroines on TV, with some of the comically narcissistic qualities we usually see dished out in smaller doses in supporting characters such as Karen on “Will & Grace.” Mindy can be superficial, manipulative, self-absorbed, callous, vain. “I’m like very smart and successful, and I’m hot,” she once said, “but I don’t even know it, which makes me even hotter.” I never feel pushed by the writers into liking her, and I’m fascinated by the prospect of watching such a shallow character becoming a mother.

At the same time, she is funny and honest and plain-spoken, cutting directly to the chase where others might dissemble. She knows herself, and she’ll make pronouncements that prove she’s comfortable with her own limitations, such as, “My TV is broken and I cannot be alone with my thoughts,” or “I’m actually busy watching a video online of a baby who’s startled by its own fart.” For someone who likes fancy stuff, she has no pretenses.

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“The Mindy Project” can be uneven, and it has taken the writers a long time to get the cast in order. The show has been a work in progress since it premiered, which means it has its share of bum moments but which also means it does not subscribe to formula. And no matter what, watching Kaling blunder ahead is consistently funny. She’s a gonzo comic in fashion glasses and a pleated skirt.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Matthew
Gilbert
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