Photo: Jordin Althaus / Fox

Why The Mindy Project Should Be The Danny Project

Our commentator is not a crackpot. He just thinks that, while Mindy Kaling created a fantastic lead role for a sitcom, it’s not the one she’s playing.

The Mindy Project has been on for a little over a season now and never fails to make me laugh. Mindy Kaling and her writing staff have created a wonderful central character -- relatable while being just the right amount of ridiculous, equally adept at cracking a joke or being the butt of one.

And that character is...Danny Castellano.

Danny (Chris Messina) is a familiar comedic archetype -- the old-fashioned man stuck in a new-fangled world -- but he’s an exceptionally well-executed one, and both the writing staff and Messina always know how to get maximal mileage out of him. I haven’t had this much fun watching a character be constantly frustrated since Luke Danes (Scott Patterson) on Gilmore Girls. (Come to think of it, how awesome would it be if they brought in Patterson to play Danny’s even-more-curmudgeonly older brother?) But Messina’s also given plenty of chances to display real depth and subtlety, especially when it comes to the problematic relationship with his ex-wife Christina (Chloë Sevigny).

Mindy Lahiri (Kaling), on the other hand, has been all over the map since the series started. She’s a funny character, but she’s not consistent enough for an audience to relate to and invest in. “Unpredictable” may be a funny comic attribute in theory, but it actually doesn’t translate all that well to serial television. In that respect, Mindy is a lot like Morgan (Ike Barinholtz). We never know what Morgan will be good at or bad at, what he’ll love or hate, or in general how he’ll react to pretty much anything -- but that’s what makes him funny...as a supporting character.

Sometimes it seems like the show is actually aware of this disparity. Last week’s episode, “Wiener Night,” had its big comedic set piece (the naked photography exhibit) revolve around Danny, with Mindy only taking control at the very end by making a (shoehorned-in) speech to the exhibit guests. It was such a good metaphor for the show’s state of affairs that I wouldn’t be surprised if it was intentional.

To be clear, I like Mindy Kaling a lot. I think she’s a good writer, a talented verbal and physical comedian, and, as far as I can tell, an all-around pretty great person. But turning one’s own personality, however appealing, into a sitcom lead character is not an easy task. Many have tried and failed, and even the success stories usually have an asterisk. (For example, Tina Fey had already played herself on SNL for several years before she spoofed her own experiences on 30 Rock.)

So, sure, they could reinvent Dr. Mindy Lahiri’s character from the ground up, but why bother when there’s such a great sitcom protagonist standing right next to her? Make Danny the lead and Mindy a supporting player. Kaling can have a slightly easier schedule, and the show (which is currently on the bubble) could have a better chance at living to make us giggle another day. I am not a crackpot.

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