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Wednesday, January 9th, 2013

Checking In with 'The Mindy Project' Halfway Through Season 1

It's been an unusual first season for The Mindy Project, with the show setting some kind of record for the insane amount of casting changes it's had so far. New shows sometimes have to make some minor casting tweaks a few episodes in, losing or gaining a character or two as the producers and network see fit. The Mindy Project, however, since its pilot has had three main cast members leave or have their roles downgraded and added one new character with two more new characters on the way in the second half of the season. That's not to say that the show's been a disaster – or anything close to it. Throughout the first half of its inaugural season, The Mindy Project has had its fair share of funny moments, with star Mindy Kaling being backed by a lot of funny people on the writing staff and (ever-changing) cast. Some of the best sitcoms going, like Parks and Recreation, Happy Endings, and Community, took a handful of episodes to find their footing. Hell, even Arrested Development took four or five shows to ramp up to full speed.  That said, The Mindy Project is brimming with the potential to join the ranks of these esteemed sitcoms, and the second half of the season could see the series overcome its rocky start to transform from a decent show into a great one.

On The Office, Mindy Kaling played a ridiculous, hilarious side character who's deliberately pretty hard to relate to, but it wasn't difficult to imagine her anchoring her own sitcom as a lead character because Kaling has established a likable, more grounded comic persona via her best-selling book Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? and her popular Twitter feed. On The Mindy Project, she handles being a sitcom lead ably, with her strong-headed, rom-com-loving  protagonist Dr. Mindy Lahiri serving as both an effective comic character and straight man to the absurd folks around her.

When it comes to the supporting cast, Chris Messina's Danny Castellano, one of four original cast members still on the show full-time, stands out, with his will-they-or-won't-they relationship with Mindy working well – even if the dynamic is old hat in the sitcom world. Ed Weeks's Brit doctor Jeremy Reed was wisely shifted from being a love interest for Mindy to being another one of her funny co-workers. Despite the fine performances by these two, though, The Mindy Project's breakout star has been Ike Barinholtz (MADtv, Eastbound & Down), who was added as a recurring character, as ex-con-turned-nurse Morgan Tookers, in Episode 2. As the grubby but kind-hearted Tookers, Barinholtz gives a charming performance that adds a lot to the show. Barinholtz, who's also a writer on Mindy, has been promoted to a series regular for the second half of the season, and hopefully that means we'll be seeing more of him since the show could stand to lean on his character more.

When it comes to the departed supporting cast, it's easy to see why some of the changes were made, while others are baffling. Stephen Tobolowksy, who played the head of Mindy's practice Dr. Marc Shulman, was jettisoned from the show two episodes in before we really got to know his character. The decision was made because the writers didn't want Mindy to have a boss who could easily solve her problems for her, which makes sense, but Tobolowsky is a really funny guy who would have been an asset to the show.

Anna Camp, who plays Mindy's best friend Gwen, was downgraded from a full-time cast member to a recurring role by the actress's choosing so that she can focus on landing other acting roles. While Camp was fine in the part, her reduced role may help the show find itself, as she's the only character who doesn't work at the central workplace. By not working at the OB/GYN clinic with everyone else, it's tough for the writers to develop relationships between Gwen and the rest of the ensemble besides Mindy, causing her character to feel isolated from the rest of the action. Amanda Setton's Jersey girl character Shauna Dicanio was also dropped halfway through the season, a move that felt unnecessary as her character proved to be a nice foil to Mindy in the limited screentime she was given.

While The Mindy Project has several strong characters, the ensemble doesn't yet feel like it's come together as a whole. That's partly because of the numerous casting shifts and also because of a number of funny but distracting appearances from big name guests in the first few episodes. The pilot featured Ed Helms and Bill Hader in major roles and Seth Meyers popped in for the second. These are some of the funniest comedic actors going, and it's a coup for The Mindy Project to land these folks on the show, as I can imagine most primetime sitcom producers would kill for an Ed Helms guest spot. In the first couple of episodes of the show, though, they're eating up screentime that's necessary to flesh out the supporting cast. Two more impressive, funny guest stars, B.J. Novak and Seth Rogen, recently filmed episodes that'll air later this season, but these guest star-centric episodes haven't been the show's strong suit so far. The Mindy Project's third episode, "In the Club," has been my favorite so far. It's an episode without any big name guests that's full of laughs and utilizes every member of the supporting cast effectively, and The Mindy Project would benefit from doing more like it.

One of The Mindy Project's strong points is its sharp writing. It's no surprise given the eclectic staff Mindy Kaling has assembled, who have been nominated for a WGA Award for "Best New Series." The show's writers include Kaling, B.J. Novak, longtime Simpsons writer Matt Warburton, Ike Barinholtz and writing partner David Stassen, Malcolm in the Middle creator Linwood Boomer (who seems to have departed a few episodes in), Late Night with Jimmy Fallon's Jeremy Bronson, and two writers poached from Community's staff, Chris McKenna and Adam Countee.

The back half of the season will hopefully see The Mindy Project continuing to grow and lean on the talented folks working on it, especially Ike Barinholtz. As the (hopefully final) round of casting changes takes place over the next few episodes, Mindy might just solidify into the year's best new sitcom.

  • wilberfan

    I think Ken Levine nailed it when, in reaction to this show he said (in part):

    "I like her but was lukewarm. Here’s why – and I don’t come at this as a critic, I come at it as a television writer/producer. As someone who has created and run shows, I know this one truth to be carved in stone: casting is the most important decision you will ever make. Everything else can be fixed. The tone, direction, jokes, stories – all can be altered. But if you don’t have the right actors you’re dead.

    And my problem with THE MINDY PROJECT is quite simply that Mindy Kaling can’t carry a show. She just doesn’t have the presence, the sparkle, whatever that star quality is to carry a network comedy. Not that she doesn’t sell jokes or isn’t likeable enough on screen, but that’s not enough."

    http://kenlevine.blogspot.com/2012/09/the-mindy-project-review.html

    I stopped watching about 4 episodes in…

    • Dick T

      It seems this writer is afraid to really criticize the show, which, even though I love this site, is my
      only real complaint about SS, in that it seems to never really criticize
      anything

      • Kt

        That's a little unfair. SS does criticize shows, but mostly ones that are "safe" to insult, sitcoms like Two and a Half Men, that they know won't alienate their audience. But I think if the writers took a chance, they could inspire some heated, but respectful and engaging, discussions in the comments.

    • Luke

      He also recommended re-titling the show "Dork and Mindy," so.

      That being said, I did think was an overly fawning review. The show's kind of a mess.

  • sara

    I'm actually really liking it. As someone in the same stage of life as
    the character (professional, 30ish, single, optimistic but still messy), I think
    it's pretty bang-on a lot of the time – I feel like the show "gets" a lot of things about my kind of life in a really funny way. Maybe it's appeal just isn't universal? I've even double-watched a few episodes.

  • http://twitter.com/FirasAlexander Firas Alexander

    I like the show and think it will improve as the season progresses because as the article points out there are a lot of talented people working on it. But that theme song must be replaced.

  • newt

    I find the show hilarious and I wouldn't really call all the casting changes, legit casting changes. Aside from Tobolowksy (who let's face it barely spoke any lines in the episodes he was in, thus him leaving made no difference) everyone else was clearly a short term character. I never got the feeling that any of those characters were supposed to be anything more.

    So it's not like any of the core cast has changed. All the main people are still the main people. Mindy has shuffled through some boyfriends and love interests, but that's not really cast changes.

  • Jc

    oh, I love shauna's character, she's really funny, and her character is really relatable. I hope they bring her back in season 2.