Debuts Sept. 25, 9:30-10 p.m., FOX
”Can you put in this story that I’m eating fruit?” asks Mindy Kaling in the middle of an L.A. nightclub, popping a raspberry into her mouth. ”This is the first time I’ve done it in four years, but…for this story: ‘Mmmm, fruit!”’
Clad in a hot-pink-and-red dress, Kaling strolls over to shoot a scene for her new comedy, The Mindy Project, on which she stars as Mindy Lahiri, a bright, loquacious ob-gyn looking for ripped-from-a-romantic-comedy love. Will she find it in this VIP booth, which is populated with sushi, champagne, and NBA players Amar’e Stoudemire, Baron Davis, and Danny Granger? Mindy squeezes in and begins her flirty interrogation: ”Okay, so what’s your favorite Tom Hanks romantic comedy?” ”How long did it take you guys to learn how to do a push-up?” ”What’s your skin-care regimen?” During a break, Kaling gushes about today’s guests: ”I just wanted to hear NBA players talking about romantic comedies. I don’t know what show would ever do it, and it’s a real mixing of my two loves, the NBA and romantic comedies. It’s kind of gross in its wish fulfillment.”
Kaling will soon get to make more of her dreams come true. The woman best known as vacuous customer-service rep Kelly Kapoor on The Office is about to try to answer her biggest call yet: becoming the next New Girl on Fox. The Dartmouth-educated daughter of a gynecologist and an architect joined the NBC comedy as the only female writer at age 24. She penned some of its most beloved episodes while rising up the ranks to executive producer, and turned into a quasi-spokesperson for her generation with her dishy Twitter feed and 2011 book of personal essays, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns). Now she has a colorful idea for her coming- out party: a show that’s part workplace comedy, part romantic comedy, and part Mindy-being-Mindy comedy.
”I love things like clothes and romance,” says Kaling, who in addition to exec-producing wrote the first few episodes of the show. ”But I also grew up on The Office, where there were only four female characters. As an assignment for myself, I thought, What if we did a show that had both the dreamy, fun, fulfillment-y romantic-comedy element of a great Nora Ephron movie but also some hard, funny observations that guys are like, ‘Finally, a guy was able to say that on TV!’… That’d be a baller show.”
At Project‘s core is Mindy Lahiri, whose expectations aren’t always in the same solar system as reality. ”She’s just so entitled and confident,” says Kaling, 33. ”She’s nothing like Michael Scott, but he always thought that he was going to marry Teri Hatcher even though there was no evidence of that. That’s a really fun, resilient character, and my character has those same kinds of blind spots.” And they will be exploited by her rival (and potential love interest?), the divorce-wounded macho doctor Danny (Chris Messina). ”There’s a love there and I don’t know if there’s a hate,” says Messina of their chemistry, ”but there’s definitely an annoyance.” (In one scene, after being razzed by Mindy while she gets ready for a date, he retorts: ”You know what would really look great? If you lost 15 pounds.”) She’ll also bond with and bump up against officemates, father figure/boss Dr. Schulman (Stephen Tobolowsky), and confidante/reluctant suburban mom Gwen (Anna Camp). Sums up executive producer/showrunner Matt Warburton (The Simpsons), ”It’s this rich Downton Abbey ecosystem of relationships.”
While the show (which NBC passed on and Fox scooped up within days) has a far more subjective — and shiny — point of view than The Office, Kaling is hardly trying to bury her past. ”It was enormously sad and difficult,” she says of leaving Dunder Mifflin, though she’ll pop up in the final-season premiere. ”My pilot is littered with Office people because I didn’t want to say goodbye.” Indeed, B.J. Novak — who costarred and produced alongside Kaling on The Office — is serving as a producer on the show, exec producer Greg Daniels will direct an episode, and Ed Helms appears as a love interest in the pilot (which was directed by Office vet Charles McDougall) and will recur on the series.
Coming weeks will explore a romance between Mindy and a swaggering sports lawyer (Tommy Dewey), and the concept of ”protected classes” in the workplace (where does Mindy stand in the hierarchy as an Indian-American woman?). And though she’s only getting started, Kaling is already planning her dream episode(s): ”Christmas season starts after Halloween ends, so why don’t we have two Christmas episodes for my show? How could I resist an episode where snowflakes are falling on Chris Messina’s beautiful eyelashes, and I’m lit by a New York night sky, and I’m having to push snowflakes out of my hair?” A pause. Then a caveat. ”I don’t think that Chris’ character would even come close enough to me to physically touch me right now, so that might be a 2016-type story line.”