Rebecca Barry Hill: Squirmy edge to satire

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Only time will tell if audiences will warm to Mindy's style or be freaked out by it. Photo / Supplied
Only time will tell if audiences will warm to Mindy's style or be freaked out by it. Photo / Supplied

Mindy Kaling, who wrote and stars in The Mindy Project (Mondays, 9.30pm, Four) likes romantic comedies. So does her alter ego, Dr Mindy Lahiri. Both Mindys - real and fictional - appear to like them in earnest. Everything from When Harry Met Sally and You've Got Mail to the kind of embarrassing films about warring brides and wannabe bridesmaids, the likes of which Katherine Heigl stars in.

Does this mean viewers need to like rom-coms to appreciate The Mindy Project? After watching the pilot, it's hard to tell. Kaling seems to both celebrate and skewer them, which is confusing, particularly after she told the The New Yorker that admitting you like such films "is essentially an admission of mild stupidity".

I love The Bachelor, which is 10 times worse, but if someone suggested I spend Saturday night watching Kate Hudson throw her high heels at some forgettable douche, I would probably respond by making a kidney and icecream pie and swallowing it whole.

The rom-com lead is usually a smart female figure reduced to humiliation by her desperation for a man. In this case, Kaling plays an obstetrician/gynaecologist putting up with the advances of two conceited male colleagues, one of whom tells her, Bridget Jones-style, she should lose weight.

Not until about a quarter of the way in did I wonder if The Mindy Project was meant to be satire.

Kaling already has the ironic humour down pat, having written for and starred in the American version of The Office and penned the funny collection of vignettes, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?. Her onscreen Mindy is so flawed even she couldn't possibly be played by someone as preppy as Heigl or Hudson. When she's not delivering babies to M.I.A's Bad Girls, she's drunk-cycling her way into the pool, where a Barbie at the bottom tells her she's a "f***ing idiot", after bad-mouthing her ex-boyfriend at his wedding (he dumped her for the Serbian bagel girl at the hospital).

Her colleagues just as easily fit the rom-com mould as test its boundaries. Dr Danny Castellano introduced himself as a "wealthy, single, heterosexual male", a nod to the genre if ever there was one. The other is a sleazy Brit she shags by the pilot's end.

When she's not playing along with the desperate single girl act, Kaling appears to be shining a light on terrible truths to get a laugh. When a Middle Eastern woman with no health insurance and "burqas and stuff" comes to see our anti-hero doc, she tells reception to book her a different kind of person.

"What, like more white patients?" says her preppy, turtle-wielding assistant, Betsy.

"Don't write that," she says, for the benefit of everyone in the room, then mouths, "Yes."

It's provocative stuff but the tone doesn't quite match. Instead, the show is a strange hybrid of the innocuous frothiness of an actual rom-com, complete with Kaling's breezy, high-pitched Valley girl accent, and something fast-paced and nudge-nudge-wink-wink a la Cougar Town.

It might be funnier if Dr Mindy's sole purpose in life wasn't finding a boyfriend. Although a scene with The Office/The Hangover's Ed Helms in which she went on a first date was pretty funny, as she crossed off her checklist of undesirable traits on her iPhone.

To see an Indian-American woman in this kind of role is new, and to know she's the mind behind the role is as admirable as it is watching Lena Dunham in Girls. But so far, the show is not as funny as I imagine Mindy Kaling to be. The Mindy Project is just that - Kaling's deconstruction of a romantic comedy, in serialised form.

Does it work? Like all sitcoms, only time will tell.

- TimeOut

- NZ Herald

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