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Mindy Kaling: TV's Smartest Airhead

Watching Mindy Kaling as Kelly Kapoor on “The Office,” you would never guess that she, as a writer and executive producer, was one of the masterminds behind the show. Kelly is a flighty chatterbox, all high-pitched bubblegum vacuity. She is obsessed with celebrity gossip and romantic comedies and the color pink. In one episode, she launches into a monologue about Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes’s daughter Suri, and Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt’s daughter Shiloh. “So what’s new with you?” Jim Halpert asks. “I just told you,” she replies. Her shtick is total, shameless triviality. “I talk a lot, so I’ve learned to just tune myself out,” Kelly says.

But Kaling herself, needless to say, is a more complicated character. Airheadedness has always been part of her presentation: On Twitter, where she has some 1.8 million followers, she keeps up an active stream of ditzy quips (“I don’t care, I’m still gonna make a run at Anderson Cooper”; “Man, I have a crush on pretty much everyone”). In her recent memoir Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns), she writes about spending her teenage years “chewing on straws and gossiping about boys” and jokes that the book is full of “really hardcore, masculine stuff that men love to read about.” But beneath it all is a narrative of confident achievement. “I’m kind of a mess,” she writes. “I did, however, fulfill a childhood dream of writing and acting in television and movies.” Kaling—both in the characters she plays and in the persona she projects—is a unique mix of ditziness and canniness. “I didn’t completely forget how to be nice or feminine because I have a career,” she writes.

That career hit a new height Tuesday, with the premiere of Kaling’s own show, “The Mindy Project,” on Fox. She plays a young OB/GYN working to balance her high-octane professional life and the small daily catastrophes of her personal life. Of course, the work-love balance is a favorite rom-com subject. And “The Mindy Project” is basically an extended riff on the rom-com. The pilot opens with a montage of Mindy watching and quoting romantic comedies at various stages of her life. The show is so strenuously attached to the genre that a new rom-com trope is offered up at every turn: the fall-down-in-heels, the interrupted wedding, the meet-cute (in her case, getting stuck in an elevator with a handsome young doctor). But this is the source of the show’s sugar-coated charm—the way it embraces an old form, with all its corniness and rote plot points, while also offering up a slyly new take on the theme of busy working women looking for love.

When professionally high-powered women appear in rom-coms, their jobs tend to be a way of illustrating their ball-busting careerism, their narrowness of life focus, the air of cool accomplishment masking romantic stupidity: they don’t have time for relationships and so they pretend not to care about men. Think Sandra Bullock as a bigshot book editor in The Proposal; Natalie Portman as a medical resident in No Strings Attached; Reese Witherspoon as a successful big-city fashion designer in Sweet Home Alabama, blinded to the fact that she is about to marry the wrong man; Katherine Heigl in just about everything. These women have to be taught to prioritize love, to look beyond the boardroom or the operating room for fulfillment.  

The alternative, it seems, is an artsy job in some kind of creative industry, an outgrowth of the heroine’s wishy-washy dreaminess and novelistic sense of the world: Meg Ryan running a bookstore in You’ve Got Mail, or reporting for a newspaper in Sleepless in Seattle; Bridget Jones working in book publicity; Drew Barrymore as a copy editor turned reporter in Never Been Kissed. Zooey Deschanel’s Jess on"New Girl" has no tension between her private and professional selves. Her identity is totally coherent; she teaches children for a living and also, appropriately, acts like one. She is just bopping along and figuring it all out, one adorably botched date at a time. And even when these women rise to the top of their fields—like Carrie in "Sex and the City"—their careers never seem to require as much time and energy as dating does. Their personal and professional lives evolve in happy collusion, feeding and reinforcing each other.

"The Mindy Project," on the other hand, begins by making it seem almost inconceivable that Mindy could be a good doctor. In the show’s pilot, she gives a drunken toast at an ex-boyfriend’s wedding, falls into a pool in her cocktail dress, and gets arrested for being a public nuisance. “It’s fine, I’m a doctor!” she yells, weaving through traffic on her bike. She spends work hours trying on “first-date outfits,” parading them for her colleagues. And so, after Mindy leaves a date early to deliver a baby, the moment when she suits up in scrubs and snaps on her surgical mask is a particularly satisfying one. She is suddenly full of a new kind of swagger, and it redeems her; it shows us that, for all her distractedness and sorority girl antics, she is not messing around.

On "30 Rock", of course, Liz Lemon is very good at her job, though the way she pulls it off seems somehow accidental. She spends most of her time wrangling doofy subordinates, fending off her own anxiety, and swooping in to do last-minute damage control. But the most notable difference between Fey and Kaling is that part of Fey’s shtick involves apologizing for herself, tempering her success with self-effacing understatement: “I accepted all the attention at face value and proceeded through life as if I were really extraordinary,” she writes in Bossypants about an accident that left her with a visible scar as a young girl. “I guess what I’m saying is, this has all been a wonderful misunderstanding.” In Kaling’s book, self-effacement, mostly in the form of nods to her own superficiality, is on full display, but it is not used to undercut her accomplishments or to make them less intimidating. “Not to sound braggy or anything, but I kind of killed it in college,” she writes. And she is not shy about telling us how good she is at her job: “A halfway compliment my friend and 'The Office' showrunner Paul Liberstein once paid me was that ‘it’s a good thing you turn in good drafts, because you are impossible to rewrite.’ Thanks Paul! All I heard was ‘Mindy, you’re the best writer we’ve ever had. I cherish you. We all do.’” One chapter is titled “Narcissistic Photos in My Blackberry.” Yet all the talk of her personal failings never feels like a gimmick intended to make her unthreatening; even when it verges on annoying, it seems genuine.

So in the end, this is what is most appealing about "The Mindy Project," and about Mindy Kaling herself: the way her own professional competence does not compete with her messy private life for airspace when it comes to our understanding of the character, the way she manages to be at once unapologetically shallow and unapologetically skilled at her job. The disorder of her love life stems from something more than cold commitment to a career. It is its own kind of obsessive crusade, a flailing parallel project. In the end the show leaves us rooting for Mindy's success professionally at least as much as romantically. When the slimy lothario she has been sporadically sleeping with and then swearing off shows up at her apartment after a long night at the hospital, you almost cheer her decision to let him in. Because why not? Her job is tough, and it’s late, and she’s bored. Mindy Kaling may be ditzy, but she never pretends not to know what she is doing.

Laura Bennett is a staff writer at The New Republic.