If you don’t like an episode of The Mindy Project, Fox’s Mindy Kaling vehicle about the travails of a single woman in New York and all of the people she works with, tune in a week later, because the show will probably be something completely different. That’s both the chief attraction and chief demerit of the show, which has felt like it was in a process of metamorphosis from the day it premiered. The series lacks a strong central premise, doesn’t possess a central relationship or conflict strong enough to build other things around, and features a host of thinly developed characters who became (if possible) even less developed in the show’s second season. But it’s willing to try just about anything to become a better show, and in its willingness to shed story devices, supporting characters, and other tired elements in pursuit of its own betterment, it becomes oddly charming.
The primary improvement of the show’s second season has been that it finally feels like it has a core worth giving a damn about. The first season of the show lacked any consistency and was never quite certain of anything, up to and including its central character, who seemed to become a different person from week to week as the story depended on it. In the second season, Kaling has doubled down on the workplace setting that was roundly criticized as one of the first season’s most extraneous elements, and it’s actually paid dividends. Too many of the characters there lack definition, but the offices of Shulman & Associates Women’s Health Group have become a solid central location for each episode to spin off from. In some of its best episodes, the season even delved into questions of what it was like to work there, from Mindy’s struggles at working with three other guys as fellow senior partners to a positive review of the business turning up on a white supremacy blog. It was all farce, but it was good farce.
The season also revealed Kaling’s skill with plotting romantic-comedy-style stories, via the long-teased coupling of Kaling’s Mindy Lahiri and Chris Messina’s Danny Castellano. The best thing on the show, even in its worst moments, is that Messina has always possessed a dour demeanor that plays nicely against the rest of the show’s bouncy tone. It was inevitable that Danny and Mindy would fall in love before the series ended, but the season’s willingness to treat this not as a series of wacky flirtations between people far younger but as two adults who were perhaps ready for commitment—maybe, they’d have to think about it—ended up giving the seasons a gravitas and soul that made its best moments sing.
Though that gravitas and soul wasn’t particularly earned. The Mindy Project’s chief failure is that it’s simultaneously trying to be the heir apparent to the joke-a-minute style of 30 Rock and the heir apparent to the more pathos-driven style of The Office. By trying to have it both ways, the program too often fails at both. The jokes come in rapid-fire fashion but are too often there to fill space or have nothing to do with what’s going on onscreen. And even the really good bits are underlined and bolded to make sure the audience gets them, instead of simply letting viewers catch up to what’s going on. (For instance, in a late-season episode, Beth Grant’s character introduces herself as “Beverly Something,” a good joke on how underdeveloped the character is, only for Zoe Jarman’s Betsy to respond with “Yeah, what is your last name?” It’s okay, The Mindy Project. We get it.) The series is filled with lines that have the shape and rhythm of jokes but are really just collected oddities, meant to be put over by the skill of the actors.
This means the pathos-ridden moments suffer for being surrounded by all of these other bits and pieces that don’t add up to wholes. The series’ use of moments when the characters genuinely and truly care about each other is the best part of season two, but those bits of character development get subsumed by the need for every character to be a pop-culture quipper and human joke machine, to say nothing of how the series’ humor tends toward insult comedy. (Mindy comes in for the worst of it, which could be refreshing, but also feels very overdone by the end of the season.) For instance, the genuine male-female friendship between Mindy and Adam Pally’s new character Peter is one of the season’s strongest, most consistent notes, but it’s hurt by the show’s need to vacillate wildly on Peter’s character development, so he can be a bedrock for Mindy one moment and a wild man-child the next.
All of that might work if the series provided a sense that these characters were complicated individuals who were many things in many different situations. But it still too often feels like Mindy, Danny, and Peter (the series’ only well-rounded characters) are whatever the series needs them to be from week to week, and the rest of the cast consists of people who are either ciphers or, in the case of Ike Barinholtz’s Morgan, pushed on the audience to such a degree that it seems as if the show has decided it can make a breakout character just by declaring one so. Despite being with the show from day one, Ed Weeks’ Jeremy Reed has yet to become anything other than the character the show never knows what to do with (this season, it tried a storyline where he put on weight, then seemed to forget about it halfway through before awkwardly bringing it back up again later). And the supporting female players—outside of an occasional joke from Xosha Roquemore’s Tamra—continue to be so underutilized that it’s easy to forget the show isn’t just about Mindy and a bunch of guys she works with.
Yet it’s hard to write off The Mindy Project, especially in season two. The show has been so much better than its first season that it’s tempting to hope season three will be just as big of an improvement over this one, and tonight’s finale creates a scenario where that very well may be possible. In particular, the series has steadily figured out how to use its protagonist to better and better ends: Kaling isn’t afraid to make pointed jokes about how society perceives everything from women’s weight to more stereotypically feminine aspects of pop culture. If the show often feels like it’s throwing ideas at the wall in a desperate attempt to make things stick, it’s that weird, improvisational spirit that creates both its best and worst moments. As season two ends, there’s the sense that The Mindy Project finally has all of the pieces it needs to create a show that’s consistently good, instead of just erratically so. But even in season two, even at its craziest, the series proved itself capable of big laughs and surprising insight. Is that enough? Not quite, but it’s a damn sight better than anyone who watched all of season one would have predicted.