Review: 'The Mindy Project' & 'Veep' return stronger than ever
Television shows are evolving organisms, which is one of the most exciting things about them, but also one of the scariest. Mediocre pilots can one day lead to great series, and vice versa. Brilliant shows can abruptly fall off a cliff, and mediocrities can stun you with leaps forward. Characters can die, settings can be abandoned, and even genres aren't sacrosanct. You just never know.
One day an earnest, boring show about twentysomethings trying to make it in the big city can import Heather Locklear and turn into a gleefully trashy soap opera about the apartment complex of the damned. Or a black comic farce about the Korean War can take a more serious tone as it ages and various actors and producers come and go. Or a riveting thriller about a terrorist sleeper agent and the bipolar CIA agent chasing him can fall apart by keeping the sleeper agent alive much too long.
With that in mind, I try not to pass final judgment on any show too quickly, to keep checking in when I can to see if promising raw material might have turned into something more, to see if a show I had written off at pilot stage like "The Neighbors" could turn in an episode as delightful as its musical outing "Sing Like A Larry Bird," or just to find out which doctors at Seattle Grace are still alive at this point, and whether I still care as a result. The problem, of course, is that we are living in the unintended side effect of TV's new Golden Age — the Golden Glut of interesting shows to keep up with. So my trigger finger's a lot itchier than it used to be, and some shows get the "That's it for me!" treatment after only an episode or two. I think back on a show like "Buffy," that took most of its first season to find itself, and wonder if I'd have the patience to wait for the greatness if it debuted today.
Sometimes, though, I'll keep up with a show that's not working for me, usually out of a combination of faith in the creative team based on past work and signs that it's only a tweak or two from realizing its potential. And occasionally, that patience gets rewarded the way it was by the new episodes of "The Mindy Project" and "Veep" debuting over the next few weeks. ("Mindy" is back tonight at 9 & 9:30 on FOX, "Veep" on Sunday at 10:30 on HBO.)
Both are shows that seemed perfect on paper. Mindy Kaling wrote many of the funniest episodes of "The Office" (including the funniest episode, "The Injury") and as both writer and performer had demonstrated a very sharp and distinct comic voice, and had a good premise in the idea of a woman who had based too many of her life decisions on the lessons learned from romantic comedies. "Veep," meanwhile, had acidic British satirist Armando Ianucci — whose "The Thick Of It" is among the most uncomfortably hilarious shows to ever originate on that side of the pond — coming to our shores and teaming up with the great Julia Louis-Dreyfus to play a fictional, completely ineffectual vice-president. And though both have gotten ardent support from other critics, they mostly frustrated me until recently.
I found "The Mindy Project" too frantic, not only in the way it kept eliminating characters and introducing new ones — the straw that broke this camel's back was the arrival of Adam Pally, whom I'd loved on "Happy Endings," playing an obnoxious bro who joined Mindy's OB/GYN practice, giving the cast at least one character too many, and an annoying one at that — but in the way that it kept trying on new identities for both Mindy and the show itself. Some weeks, Mindy was a functional adult; in others, a borderline insane person who had somehow wrangled herself a medical degree. Mindy the producer not only kept shaking up the supporting cast, but cycling love interests on and off so quickly that only a few of the relationships (notably with Anders Holm as minister-turned-DJ Casey) felt like anything but placeholders for the moment when Mindy and grouchy partner Danny Castellano (Chris Messina) would hook up, as the rules of TV romantic comedies would dictate.
"Veep," meanwhile, established itself as a show whose point of view is that all politicians are craven opportunists who believe in nothing but their own advancement, and that nothing ever gets accomplished as a result. It's not an unfair angle, but it's such a deeply cynical one that, when combined with the hollowness of all the regular characters, meant that the series had an incredibly high comedy bar to clear. You can say that your subject matter is pointless and your characters are all sociopathic bumblers, but then you have to be insanely funny to keep me interested. "The Thick of It" pulled that off, thanks mainly to the astonishing profanity of Peter Capaldi's Malcolm Tucker; with no character on that level, and with Louis-Dreyfus' Selina Meyer a frustrated but mild blank, "Veep" did not.