First seasons of comedies are notoriously difficult. Look at the freshman years of Seinfeld or The Office. Their early episodes are rough drafts of the classic sitcoms both shows eventually became.
So, not surprisingly, The Mindy Project, which returns for a second season on Sept. 17, spent much of its first season finding itself. Was title character Dr. Mindy Lahiri (Mindy Kaling) someone to root for or against? Was it a workplace comedy that sometimes showed Mindy’s dating life? A romantic comedy that sometimes showed her work life? Supporting characters came and went. And some characters seemed to be different people each week as the show struggled to figure out what it wanted to be when it grew up.
Kaling said the number-one thing she learned is that viewers need to like Mindy. “As it turns out you shouldn’t be on TV and be like, ‘I want to be unlikable,’” Kaling tells critics during a recent visit to the show’s set. “There’s a sense of protecting a female character that I hadn’t really anticipated.”
The good news is the Fox comedy has, quite brilliantly, sorted itself out. The first two episodes of the second season are hilarious as the show perfects its nuanced balance between Mindy’s dating life and the office shenanigans at her OB/GYN practice. And while still slighty shallow and celebrity obsessed, Mindy has evolved into a flawed but relatable character.
This season, the series will focus on two areas—Mindy’s work life and Mindy’s dating life. Xosha Roquemore, who guest-starred last season as medical assistant Tamra, joins the cast full time. The lives of Mindy’s coworkers will be expanded. We’ll meet Jeremy’s (Ed Weeks) father and Tamra’s boyfriend. “Mindy’s work friends are her friends. I still have my friends from other aspects of my life but I just don’t spend nearly as much time with them,” Ike Barinholtz, who plays Morgan on the series, says. “You kind of hang out with people you work with now.”
So viewers probably won’t be seeing much of Anna Camp’s Gwen or Mary Grill’s Maggie, but Barinholtz isn’t ruling out their return. “They still exist in the universe, just like the Marvel Universe,” he says. “Once we establish them, they can always come back.”
Weeks says the growing pains were to be expected. “The show went through a number of evolutions,” he tells Paste. “And so, at times, I’m sure lots of us felt at sea. But there would always be something in every episode where I thought, ‘Oh that’s another piece of the jigsaw.’”
Viewers will remember that in last season’s finale, Mindy chopped off her hair and accepted her boyfriend Casey’s (Anders Holm) invitation to spend a year volunteering in Haiti. The series picks up with the duo in Haiti and Mindy still sporting short hair (Kaling says it’s a wig and that she’ll let Mindy’s hair grow out over the course of the season).
“It’s the most that Mindy has had to do that is hard work,” Kaling tells Paste, referring to her alter-ego’s time in Haiti. “But you know she’s up to it. In addition to being a little bit shallow, she’s also a college-educated person from a family of doctors, so she was able to do it. But it was fun to see her with that challenge.”
But Mindy won’t languish in Haiti for long. When she returns to the medical practice, she discovers she’s been replaced by Dr. Paul Leotard (James Franco in a two-episode guest arc.) He quickly becomes Mindy’s nemesis. “We wanted a really big adversary at the beginning just as a symbol of how things have changed dramatically while she was gone, and he’s as good an example of that of any,” executive producer Matt Warburton says.
Franco is just one of the big-name guest stars the series will have this season. Chloe Sevigny will return as Danny’s (Chris Messina) ex-wife Christina. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia star Glenn Howerton will have a multi-episode arc as a potential love interest for Mindy. Kris Humphries spoofs himself in a cameo in the season’s second episode (“More press for that than anything ever in the history of media,” Barinholtz says.) Adam Pally of the recently canceled Happy Endings will also have a guest arc. “I went to Dartmouth College, and until now, I have not been able to satirize my favorite kind of Dartmouth character, which is a kind of well-educated frat guy who is both congenial and ultra into his frat,” Kaling tells critics of Pally’s character.
Before Mindy departed for Haiti, she and Danny (Chris Messina) shared a moment where the two looked as if they might kiss. Kaling says those moments are a bit inevitable: “The thing about Chris is if you’re a heterosexual woman in a scene with him, people are like, ‘Whoa, what’s going to happen with them?’ He’s just really smoldering.”
The duo will pick up on that moment in the second season premiere, but not in the way viewers might expect. “What’s interesting about taking a break and having Mindy go away for a while is they see each other in a very interesting way in the premiere,” Warburton says. “He’s moved on with Christina and she’s moved really far on with Casey, and it’s just going to take some time for them to remind themselves that, ‘Oh things got a little weird last year.’ We don’t want to ever move things too fast or slow with that very special relationship. So this gives us the opportunity to reset a little bit.”
Kaling, who is not only the star of the series but also an executive producer and a writer, envisions the series going for many seasons no matter how much Dr. Lahiri evolves. “The cool thing about this show is that if the character were to get married, get divorced, have a kid, be a single mom, the character has such a strong personality, and so do the other characters, that any of those situations are fun,” she says. “If the character gets too mature will she not be fun? She’s never going to get that mature. You are who you are, and she’s not going to grow up too much. She’s always like one step forward, two steps backwards in her maturity.”