Successful TV shows are powered by conflict. The characters face difficult decisions, or impossible situations, both externally and internally, and we tune in to see how they grapple with them. The irony of The Mindy Project, a series about an eponymous New York based doctor, who, the website tells us, is 'a skilled OB/GYN trying (and failing!) to navigate her romantic life with dignity and grace', is that there is no sustained conflict.
Initially, one believes that the conflict will be provided by Mindy's job: she works as a successful obstetrician in a private New York practice. So far, so good. We have for our lead a financially independent, professional woman, who, although she is looking for 'the one', will not be the type of waity-Katy so perfectly embodied by a character like Charlotte, in SATC. Mindy is a woman of substance - a doctor, no less. Yet she is also flamboyantly, purposefully shallow and narcissistic - which would be a conflict except there's never any doctoring. Although much of the sitcom takes place at her offices, the scenes there focus on her relationships with the other doctors (who equally never seem to have patients, or responsibilities), and an eclectic mix of zany supporting staff members. Her job as doctor, which ought to confer status and authority, helping to remind us that she is, despite her foibles and affectations, ultimately loveable, is so far removed from the screen as to be invisible. What could provide the sustained conflict of the series is not allowed to. We want to believe that Mindy is a person of worth, if only for our own viewing comfort, but the sitcom doesn't use her career to prove that.
Yet Mindy herself believes so firmly that she is a woman of substance that she plays with the genre- subverting our expectations of both how a doctor (in the pilot, she refuses to answer a patient's call, because she is at dinner with a hot man) and a female lead should behave. Which, when it results in brilliant one-liners and a constant refusal to accept how she ought to behave, is formidable. But she doesn't ignore her patient's call because she believes in maintaining a healthy work-life balance, or because she has recognized the need to establish boundaries. Mindy refuses to answer the call because she's on a date, in her thirties, with a nice-looking man with a real job. And all at once, we're back in the tired and tiresome world of a whole host of 1990s sitcoms and romantic comedies, which argued that single women in their thirties ought to start lowering their expectations, and quickly.
All of which sits at odds with the character Mindy embodies: a woman who refuses, vocally and actively, to let herself be cast into any role other than the one she herself has chosen. A running, very funny trope is her constant re-imagining of herself as a tiny, delicate woman, delivering perfectly timed zingers that the actress clearly relishes, whilst appearing unabashedly physical and present. 'Let her go guys, she's dead weight anyway.' 'I don't weigh anything! I'm like a cloud!' (It is no accident that she is dressed almost exclusively in clashing prints and bright colours.) But brilliant one-liners cannot sustain a series, particularly not an American series, which runs to 22 episodes a season.
Perhaps, with the doctor schtick being underutilized, the conflict will arise from Mindy's relationships with her co-workers. And this is where The Mindy Project has shown its true colours - an ability to adapt and willingness to improve that sets it apart from its competition.* Initially, the large ensemble cast felt more like wheel-on figures, the various 'hilarious' nurses and doctors being shoved into focus for brief moments to deliver pithy one-liners or provide all-too-brief moments of tension. But as the show has progressed, the cast has been allowed to develop into genuine supporting characters, and, finally, able to provide its much-needed sustained conflict.
As the show grew into itself (or allowed itself the opportunity to grow into a sustainable series), we were given a potent and engaging central conflict between Mindy and Danny Castellano, her co-worker. Danny Castellano, played beautifully by Chris Messina, who is, equally, excellent in The Newsroom, and should very much be seen as the Chris Pratt of The Mindy Project (in that lead movie roles will not be too far away) acted as the perfect foil for Mindy. As they negotiated their professional and personal relationship, we reveled in the conflict between our opposing characters. Finally, we had something with the potential to hold our attention over time, to offer Mindy an opportunity to make difficult choices and balance conflicts, and to give the show depth and meaning. For a season, we invested in the will they-won't they dynamic of Mindy and Danny. And then, at the end of season two, they did.
Which brings us worryingly close to the position The Mindy Project found itself in initially: there may be no central conflict. How the show negotiates this, and its sustained ability to create tension and clashes, will determine whether this is yet another failed romantic-comedy type sitcom, or something much greater than the sum of its parts.
*Whilst The Mindy Project cheerfully ditched Mindy's non-useful 'best friend' midway through the first season, New Girl has insisted on keeping Winston alive, flogging the character's ill-defined and bizarre role long past the point of efficacy.