A year ago, most people had no idea who Mindy Kaling was. Now, the actress' face is everywhere — magazine covers, billboards, bus stops — but most importantly, she's starring in a new sitcom The Mindy Project, which premieres Tuesday at 9:30/8:30c on Fox. And though the series airs after New Girl, don't be fooled into thinking Kaling's TV alter ego Mindy Lahiri is anything like the "adorkable" Jess (Zooey Deschanel). Mindy is no sexually innocent, manic pixie dream girl. Instead, she's a grown woman who isn't afraid to go after whatever she wants professionally, romantically or sexually. In short, she's my hero.
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The Mindy Project is one part romantic comedy, one part satirical sitcom. Blending edgy humor with impractical idealism, the series reinvigorates tired tropes to deliver familiar stories in a modern way. The show's cheekier aspects become clear almost immediately, when Mindy meets her supposed Prince Charming while stuck in an elevator (insert clumsy interaction and appropriately timed cascade of hair). But just as The Mindy Project lays this well-trodden ground, it quickly reminds viewers this isn't your typical rom-com. Cut ahead one scene and Mindy is now drunkenly riding her bike into a pool after her now-ex-boyfriend's wedding to another (younger) woman. Yikes.
And yet, somehow Mindy just brushes it off and continues on with her day. Did she mess up? Yeah. Does she care? No. Throughout the pilot, Mindy is refreshingly self-aware about both her faults and her strengths — the combination of which turns her self-obsession from pretentiously narcissistic into charmingly endearing. This is because even when she's bragging about her fierce first-date outfit or kickbutt job, we're always aware that Mindy knows she's still a long way from perfect. That's not to say her confidence is simply a front for her insecurities and fear of never being loved. No, Mindy's confidence exists alongside her insecurities and fear of never being loved. It's called layers, people! (Yes, women do have them.)
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Fortunately, Mindy doesn't allow this fear to run her life, preferring to face the issue head-on. "Maybe I won't get married. I'll just do one of those Eat, Pray, Love things," she muses after a bad date. "Ugh. No. I don't wanna pray. Forget it. I'll just die alone." And while dying alone is far from desirable, Mindy doesn't curl up and cry at the prospect. Instead, she goes home and calls up her co-worker to enjoy some meaningless sex.
Yes. Mindy Lahiri enjoys sex. And quite a lot, too. But things can't be all booty calls and OB-GYN's gone wild. In the pilot, Mindy decides to turn her life around and resist such carnal temptations — all in the hopes of getting her Hollywood happy ending. This inner struggle between balancing her natural libido with how society — more specifically, rom-com screenwriting queen Nora Ephron — tells her to act might just be the most honest depiction of being a single female today. (I swear Mindy's rambling speech to Ed Helms' character about not having sex on the first date was taken from my diary verbatim.)
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This struggle is exactly what The Mindy Project is about: compromise. It's about compromising what you want at the moment for your long-term desires; compromising your inflated expectations, with the disappointing truth of reality, where your ex marries the Serbian bagel girl and the only man openly attracted to you is more "Hugh Grant in real life" than "Hugh Grant in About a Boy."
Do I think the pilot was the biggest LOL-fest of the fall season? No. But the characters and writing have enough humor and heart in them to make me fall as hard for the series as Meg Ryan fell for Tom Hanks in You've Got Mail (or Sleepless in Seattle. Or even Joe Versus the Volcano). Then again, I might be a little biased because, like Mindy, I'm a head-over-heels romantic who is no stranger to the drunk tank (No, I've never ridden my bike wasted into a pool, but that's only because I don't know how to ride a bike).
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But for any person — woman or man, lush or straight-edge — I believe The Mindy Project delivers something truly rare on television these days: a female protagonist who is both realistic and aspirational. Mindy isn't perfect, nor does she pretend to be, but she does understand herself in a way so few women on prime-time do. Instead of allowing others to define her based on her gender, race or any single trivial aspect, Mindy embraces all dimensions of her personality, from her extreme girliness to her biting snark. Not since Buffy stalked the streets of Sunnydale have we seen a heroine as flawed, as feminine and as strong as Mindy. That alone is worth tuning in for each week. Soft hair, hard attitude — Mindy, you have it all!
The Mindy Project premieres Tuesday at 9:30/8:30c.