If you haven’t been keeping up with The New Normal, here’s a fall TV newsflash: Hater humor is all the rage. But it wasn’t Nana Forrest’s Republican rhapsodizing that got my proverbial panties in a bunch last night, it was a much more insidious brand of bad-mouthing — and from a most unexpected source: The Mindy Project.
In an out-of-the-blue bit of banter between doctors Mindy Lahiri (Mindy Kaling) and Danny Castellano (Chris Messina), Danny tells Mindy she could stand to lose 15 pounds. It was framed as a classic bit of cage-rattling, colleague-as-competition trash talk, with Danny inciting Mindy under his breath so she could overreact publicly because… you know… women be crazy y’all. I get that Mindy is meant to be a mess and that this particular exchange was just another way to shorthand the sparky, snarky dynamic between these two, but it seemed gratuitous. Why that joke?
As Lady Gaga can attest, body image critiques hit swift and hard. It’s a lazy way to provoke someone, and, given the way Danny was ever-so-broadly painted during the first half of the episode, this kind of low blow fit his character perfectly. But Danny isn’t an independent entity. He was written by Kaling herself. So what’s worse — that the “joke” was said at all or that Kaling herself wrote it?
Now, I’m not arguing Kaling is now or has ever sold herself as any sort of feminist, but she has proven herself to be smart, sassy, and self-possessed. As Ken Tucker points out, “Mindy Lahiri, wisecracking OB/GYN, seems more like Kaling than [The Office‘s] Kelly Kapoor, daffy dating disaster.” The pilot, more than any other episode, is Mindy Kaling. While every person (man or woman) has body issues, Kaling has positioned hers in a much different way than, say, Lena Dunham’s neurotic exhibitionism on Girls. Hannah Horvath’s extra 13 pounds is a fact to be stated (even if it’s uncomfortable), Mindy’s is a fault to be fixed. And in the pilot, no less — where the A-game material should go.
Complicating the issue, it’s clear that Mindy and her self-appointed fixer Danny will inevitably hook up. Not unlike Nick and Jess from New Girl, it’s the would-be couple’s clash that makes their chemistry crackle. On the flip side, though, Nick was never so flagrantly mean to Jess as Danny was to Mindy. And for what? It begs the question of where Kaling is going to take this Project. If the end of the episode (and Messina’s impressively charming recovery from the 15-pound bitter pill) was any indication, Danny will shape up — even if he doesn’t shut up.
With a series of flashbacks, then a navel-gazing elevator meet-cute and subsequent wedding meltdown in the first 10 minutes, Mindy‘s opener efficiently packages our heroine as the living, breathing, stumbling-through-life product of that alluring blend of fairy tales and sociopathy we know as the romantic comedy. She is almost a Sorkin-esque ditz-iot savant at times. But Mindy’s “I want to punch you in the face” reaction to Danny’s insult shows that there’s more there. She will stand up for herself (albeit not entirely appropriately) if provoked. Like any cookie-cutter rom-com, the presents a mixed message, to say the least. I get that this was a comedy pilot, constrained by quick-and-dirty expository necessity, but I don’t think I’m alone in saying it still chafes a bit that Mindy the character will stand up for herself, even as Mindy the writer/creator is gratuitously tearing her down.