When I first watched the pilot of The Mindy Project this summer, I thought it was a bust, and not just because the title sounds like everyone blew off the "naming our show is important" meeting. It was interesting, even a little dark for a sitcom, but during my first watch, the episode got broader and broader to the point of diluting its promising bit of originality. The trope of a woman who is a mess in her social life but amazing in her professional one is usually not irritating, but as of late The Newsroom has abused that dichotomy by employing a couple of hysterical savants. Many of the jokes in the pilot were tepid and, while it didn't turn me off from wanting to watch more, my promised perseverance was only in hopes that it would get better fast. Instead of being excited for a new show from a strong female voice, I'd basically started my countdown to the four-episode decision.
Then I finally got around to reading Mindy Kaling's book, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (and Other Concerns). I don't want to sound like an infomercial so I'll just tell you it's good and funny and walks a fine line between candid and TMI, like you might expect from Kaling. But, more than anything, it made me reconsider The Mindy Project.
The show and the book are not supposed to be intentionally linked (I don't think), but it's hard not to draw on one to fill in the other. I'll recount the characteristics that reminded me of each in Kaling's own "pliest" style. In her book, that's how she describes essays "with a list-y quality." You might know it better as "80 percent of all professional blog entries."
Note: For all our sanity, I'll refer to Mindy the writer/actor as Kaling. For the character in the show (the OB/crazy person), I'll use her last name, Lahiri.
My first pass of the opening narration made me think of Carrie Bradshaw's "clever" meditations on the trivialities and tragedies of first-world life—if not in content, at least in tone and cadence. Kaling mentions in one of her chapters the grip Sex and the City had on the city of New York in the early aughts. How soon I forget that telling someone they were a Charlotte used to be a legitimate thing to say and not reason to stop a conversation.
So the book reinforced my initial reaction. My initial, such-a-boy reaction. After the pilot became available. I read that viewers, women specifically, felt Lahiri's asides and soliloquized quips reminded them of their own inner monologues. And while I feel that Carrie Bradshaw's columns weren't representative of women so much as embodiments of unchecked and often-encouraged evil, her narration is frequently considered part of that same conversation, a voice for a gender whose voice is so often misrepresented, ignored entirely, or reduced to nagging set-up for a fat man's punchline. That's not to say I think Lahiri is derivative as a character or that Kaling is copying the SATC model. Girls often gets unfairly saddled with that accusation. Putting Girls and The Mindy Project in the same sentence with SATC is more of a compliment to Lena Dunham and Kaling that there's room for the voices of confident women who inspire emotional connections in a female audience.
While it would've been easy and interesting for Kaling to set her show within the realm of her actual career, I understand the need to fictionalize a universe (because we don't want to follow Tina Fey all the way down the rabbit hole), and I thank Kaling profusely for sparing us a Hollywood-based sitcom. My first viewing of the pilot had me seeing the parallel between Lahiri's position of birthing children/holding the hands of women as they move into the next phase of their lives and Lahiri's own transition... but the impact was later compounded by knowing that Kaling's mother is also an obstetrician. Write what you know, sure. Write the life where you follow in a parent's footsteps? That's just good karma.
Kaling fictionalized the world of the show by changing a few key factors about her own life—her occupation, and making Lahiri essentially an ambitious Kelly Kapoor (who Kaling insists is not anything like her in real life). One important thing the author and the character share, however, is the way romantic comedies figure into their lives. Both the book and the show document how Kaling/Lahiri always made time for rom-coms, to the detriment of a social life. But the result of that life is where the personality and the character diverge. Look, I can only assume things about Kaling based on the media-spun interviews and PR-biased interpretation of her, just like I can only assume Olivia Wilde is the coolest, hottest humanitarian this side of Angelina Jolie who would be totally into a polyamorous relationship with me and my girlfriend. That's what I get from interviews, anyway.
But from Kaling's book you get the impression that her romantic perspective is hopeful, even naive at times, when it comes to the subject of true love. Lahiri, meanwhile, is jaded—spurned by the reality of storybook love not working out and surviving its existential aftermath. It's almost as if Kaling is exploring the other side, the Sliding Doors dark side, one where she emerges from the pain to find the perfect partner while Dido is playing somewhere.
Lahiri's best friend is a beautiful blonde woman named Gwen (Anna Camp). Kaling's best friend is a beautiful blonde woman named Bren. Not exactly revelatory.
Chris Rock visited The Daily Show a couple months ago to promote Two Days in New York (do you remember that was a movie?), and he and Jon Stewart discussed the constant need for new material in the age of YouTube, where people broadcast everything you say and there's a constant demand for new content. I see both sides of the issue: I've watched Eddie Izzard's Dress to Kill about 90 times, but if I saw him do it live tomorrow, I'd be a little disappointed.
So what I will say is this: While the jokes in the pilot were mostly asides or quick punchlines, they're jumping-off points in the book. The essays almost become footnotes or writer's commentary to the episode itself. It might be a little early in Kaling's celebrity to say they're "callbacks," but the one-liners that were supposed to elicit a chuckle in the pilot are actually the suggestion of deeper material. Which leads me to...
After Lahiri suffered her heart for nearly the entire pilot, the man you can only assume will be the actual, eventual love interest—Daniel—interrogated his coworker as to whether she thought her latest date was a boy or a man. In the book, Kaling dedicates an entire essay to this subject, saying how she used to be scared of "men" and would only date "boys." Kaling says that, once she crossed into the realm of the thirty-year-old, males who were "committed" and "entrenched" were more appealing than the kind of boys who still carry around skateboards for transportation.
The Daniel character is the Kaling voice of experience speaking with a Jersey accent. Watching the pilot alone, the speech might get diluted by both the fact that Daniel is obviously talking about himself as the perfect male specimen for dating and the possibility that the show is setting up sexual tension between Daniel and Lahiri. The book as a companion reinforces that this is honestly a step toward being all growed up. The transition from boys to men is a sign of Lahiri busting free of her arrested adulthood, the necessary turnaround to kick off the series. Although it's almost assured that none of the men Kaling discusses in the book would punch a dude at a Springsteen concert for wearing the wrong T-shirt, you get the idea.
All told, the episode came to life for me after reading the book. It was elevated from pedestrian and uneven; I made a connection to the episode through the celebrity persona of Mindy Kaling. Whether or not she considered the book to be a companion piece while developing her show is irrelevant. Providing a candid document as source material for a show that is superficially fiction is an interesting tactic to make a show more compelling. It makes you question what's real and what's completely fabricated. It contextualizes heartbreaking or ridiculous circumstances. Maybe most importantly, it connects the audience with the central character in a way that a 22-minute pilot can struggle to do. Mindy Kaling is your friend. And you want to watch your friend do well.
That being said, don't feel like you need to read the book to enjoy the show. The pilot itself may have been uneven, but the characters and series have potential. Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? isn't a Rosetta Stone necessary to fully understand Kaling's story. It's more like commentary, contextual winks that flesh out the thought process behind her televisual creation. No, you don't have to do homework to enjoy the show. I'm just saying it doesn't hurt to do some extra credit.