A couple of freshman comedies starring well-known actors are providing instructive lessons in how -- and how not -- to deploy a lead character.
"Go On" (Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET on NBC), which stars Matthew Perry as a grief-group participant, has blossomed into an enjoyable little gem. I won't make any grand claims for "Go On" -- it's still way too early for that -- but what's reassuring is that I don't think the NBC comedy would make any grand claims for itself. "Go On" is just plugging along and using the strengths of its star and its talented ensemble cast judiciously to create comedy that is melancholy, surreal and pleasingly goofy. I'm eager to see more (like "Mindy," "Go On" has gotten a full-season order).
"The Mindy Project" (Tuesdays at 9:30 p.m. ET on Fox), on the other hand, is a puzzling disappointment. It's not a good sign when the most amusing parts of a comedy revolve around a show's supporting characters, not its alleged lead. But the fact is -- as much as it pains me to say it -- a lot of the time, I either dislike or merely tolerate Mindy Lahiri, Mindy Kaling's obstetrician/gynecologist character. What's weird is that I can't figure out why the talented comedy professionals making this show can't diagnose what's wrong with Dr. Lahiri.
The first and most obvious problem is that Lahiri is quite often rude, insulting and selfish. These kinds of characters can be funny -- there are whole comedy empires built on them -- but Lahiri's material often isn't all that witty to start with and Kaling's delivery doesn't take this middling, dismissive material and make it hilarious.
For an abrasive character to work as the lead of an ensemble comedy, at least two conditions should ideally be met: Their material should be razor-sharp, and the character should get occasional chances to be sympathetic and more than a cartoon (see Jeff Winger on "Community").
The problem with "The Mindy Project" is not just that I don't think Lahiri is very funny; an even bigger problem is that I don't care whether the romantic-comedy-obsessed character ever attains her goals. For a show that needs the audience to be at least vaguely sympathetic to her quest to find love, that is a very big problem. As my Twitter correspondent Erin Riley succinctly put it, the "Mindy" powers that be "haven't fully embraced the anti-hero thing, so she's in this weird limbo, but not in an interesting or deliberate way." Exactly.
There are, in every episode, token attempts to make Lahiri seem likable or winning, but they seem perfunctory and unearned much of the time. When the gang went clubbing, for example, she reconnected with her flailing friends only after ditching them for most of the episode. The show is too often on the wrong side of the line that separates oblivious from obnoxious, and Lahari's less attractive side might work marginally better if Mindy Kaling were a world-class actress, but she's not. Kaling was fine in a limited role on "The Office," but there, her character there didn't have to carry the show.
Now her similarly self-absorbed, superficial character has to carry "The Mindy Project," but Kaling is simply not capable of bringing the kind of depth and nuance that Dr. Lahiri needs to make her either sympathetic or fascinating. Kaling rushes through her lines, she doesn't connect with other characters and she seems vaguely irritated and distracted a lot of the time.
Beyond the scattered, ineffective performance, the character is not being used or developed in ways that make me want to spend much time with her, and in a TV landscape chock-full of good comedies, that's a problem. The most I can hope for is that, as happened with Leslie Knope in the early days of "Parks and Recreation," the "Mindy" writers figure out how to make their lead character more well-rounded and interesting. Just as Leslie couldn't remain a more hyper version of Michael Scott, Lahiri shouldn't be a more needy, condescending version of Kelly Kapoor.
The show knows how to make characters' dilemmas funny and sympathetic; it's done that pretty well with Chris Messina's and Ed Weeks' doctor characters (their trip to the DMV was particularly enjoyable). Though it's underusing Anna Camp, "Mindy" has made the supporting characters played by Ike Barinholtz and Zoe Jarman genuinely amusing (Jarman's innocent-gal line deliveries are consistently one of the best things about the show). All that remains is to recalibrate the lead character into someone who's not actively detracting from what the show is trying to do, and "Mindy" might start to work.
Part of the problem with "Mindy," it seems to me, is that the writers are constantly trying to give Lahiri all the skewering lines and the funniest jabs. But the thing about lead characters is that they often have to be the straight man for the people around them (part of the reason we love Leslie Knope is because she good-naturedly puts up with so many goofballs and knuckleheads). "Mindy" is Kaling's vehicle, but for the show to work, the lead can't always sarcastically go after everyone else. Despite Perry's skills in that arena, that restraint is something "Go On" has understood from the outset.
"Go On," like "Mindy," has a very deep bench of talented supporting actors, and one of the smartest things the show has done is give them a lot of room in which to shine. I could watch Julie White's acerbic character deliver finely honed putdowns all day long, and Brett Gelman provides Barinholtz with some brilliant competition as the funniest new creep on TV. The show hasn't developed all its supporting characters quite yet, but given the smart progress it's made in a very short time, I'm optimistic about "Go On's" future.
Each "Go On" character started out as a one-note type, but they're evolving away from those limitations: Gelman's Mr. K is still super-weird but no longer someone you'd half-expect to store human heads in his freezer. The good news is that even the recalibrated version of the character is often hilarious, thanks to Gelman's flawless comic timing and deft line deliveries.
White is another revelation; her Anne is one of the most delightful new characters of the year. Anne is tough, smart and cynical, but we've seen that there's a lot of grief underneath her strength (the character lost her wife before joining the grief group). Through Anne and Perry's character, Ryan, the show has actually done a remarkable job of being truthful to the grieving process while supplying a steady array of comical situations. And it's worth noting that, along with Max on "Happy Endings," Anne is one of the most well-rounded gay characters on TV. As Alyssa Rosenberg has pointed out, Anne's status as a lesbian is treated matter-of-factly and the writers show us many different sides of her personality and her life. I love that we're getting gay and bisexual characters on TV whose sexuality neither defines or limits them.
Perry may be best known for his sarcastic side, but "Go On's" writers know that he's always been good at delivering pathos and sadness as well. Ryan's scenes with his dead wife could be treacly and awful, but they're written with a light touch, and Perry plays them with terrific subtlety. And in the life-change group led by the capable Laura Benanti, we see reflections of Ryan's various modes of dealing with grief and pain: There's the sunny denial of Danny (Seth Morris), the resigned endurance of Owen (Tyler James Williams), the hyper-energized coping of Yolanda (Suzy Nakamura) and the cheerful naughtiness of Sonia (Sarah Baker). The office scenarios with John Cho aren't as interesting yet, but it doesn't really matter -- I'd much rather visit Danny's fantasy world, Harborville, an old-timey place he visits in his mind when life gets too hard.
Perry's capacity to convey a character's quiet pain is used well, as is his proven way with an ironic zinger. And unlike "The Mindy Project," where the lead is less interesting than the people around her, Ryan is both assisted in and distracted from his life goals by a very amusing group of characters. The clip below, in which the group tries to hide his dead wife's birthday surprise from him, is a good indication of how well that's working. In a very crowded fall season, the surreal, silly and heartflet "Go On" has more than earned its place on my DVR roster. We'll have to see whether "Mindy's" prognosis improves.
Though both comedies are pre-empted by election coverage Tuesday, "The Mindy Project" regularly airs on Tuesdays at 9:30 p.m. ET on Fox and "Go On" regularly airs on Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET on NBC.