Mindy Kaling believes in the power of the rom-com. The world of The Mindy Project, Kaling's great sitcom that FOX just picked for a second season, isn't a romantic comedy world. But the humor of the show comes from Mindy's expectation that those same rom-com rules will apply. Unlike in the movies, when Mindy uses the unrealistic traditions of romantic comedies to take her own romantic risks, the results are hilarious, ridiculous, painful, and embarrassing.
The most recent episode of The Mindy Project opens with a clip from the classic You've Got Mail. "If I hadn't been Fox Books," Tom Hanks says to an already-weepy Meg Ryan, "and you hadn't been the Shop Around the Corner, and you and I had just… met." Mindy's voiceover intercuts. "People always ask me why I like romantic comedies so much. It's because even under extraordinary circumstances, the right two people can end up together."
Of course, in Mindy's mind, the "right" two people are defined not by compatibility, but by rom-com logic. As a result, she throws her show's star—a Mindy Kaling-esque OBGYN named Mindy Lahiri—into a dizzying array of unlikely matches: from her co-workers (Jeremy Reed, a handsome British ladykiller whose Hugh Grantishness is palpable) to business rivals (Brendan, a midwife whose upstairs business threatens Mindy's medical practice). Under rom-com logic, these are the golden boys!
Mindy Lahiri joins a great tradition of rom-com characters who are avid rom-com fans. Think about it: in Sleepless In Seattle, Meg Ryan and Rosie O'Donnell chomp popcorn and ache over An Affair to Remember. In When Harry Met Sally the titular couple spends their evenings on the phone together, debating the merits of Casablanca. Liam Neeson and his stepson watch Titanic (admittedly not so much a comedy) in Love Actually, and later the boy reassures Neeson that, "The thing about romance is… people only get together right in the end." All of these characters end their respective films with dramatic, over-the-top, only-works-in-a-rom-com gestures: meeting a stranger on top of the Empire State Building, giving an emotional, over-the-top speech about their partner's nose-crinkle, ducking post-9/11 airport security just to secure that one, all-important kiss. And it works, because, well, these characters are in romantic comedies. And so, when they play by the rules of the romantic comedy universe, they win.
In a recent blog post for NPR, Linda Holmes wrote an astute and convincing defense of the genre of the romantic comedy. The best romantic comedies, Holmes points out, are the ones that use romantic comedy not as a genre, but as an element—citing favorites like Sleepless in Seattle and You've Got Mail as romantic comedies that are "at times profoundly sad," as well as films like Bridesmaids and Safety Not Guaranteed as films whose romantic comedy elements are definitely present, but don't dominate the entire film. And as Holmes notes, great romantic comedies aren't about the plots. Story-wise they're "resoundingly silly." Instead, romantic comedies are "exercises in flawless scene-level execution, not storytelling."
Kaling's adaptation of the romantic comedy to the small screen borrows structures, themes, and storylines from the rom-com genre, but its feet are planted firmly in workplace comedy (a genre of which The Office alum is a master), and thus it avoids the pitfalls of a singular focus on romantic storylines. And while many of us may, like Holmes, roll our eyes at the silliest bits of our favorite romantic comedies, The Mindy Project delights in the silly, the absurd, and the antic, centralizing these hackneyed plot devices and milking them for comedic value.
The show occasionally asks us to suspend our disbelief of these rom-com clichés, but only so long as it takes to pull the rug out from under them. In a recent episode, Mindy, on a date with dream guy Jamie (B.J. Novak) decides to fulfill her fantasy of taking a date to the top of the Empire State building. While waiting in line, her conversation with Jamie leads him to realize—for the first time—that he's in love with his best friend, a woman with whom his chemistry is obvious to everyone but the two of them. Jamie runs to her apartment, Mindy in tow, and confesses his love, thus demoting Mindy from leading lady of her own love story to the supporting cast of someone else's.
The best part of The Mindy Project is that it manages to do what most commentaries on romantic comedies can't: it finds a way to make fun of the genre. The show consistently points out the ridiculous, unrealistic, and often patent absurdity of "Hollywood romance" narratives, without mocking the pleasure we take in them. While most critiques of rom-coms are sexist, nasty, and contemptuous of the genre and its audience, The Mindy Project accepts that while these narratives may be silly—that's part of what makes them fun.