After eight seasons on The Office, both behind the camera (as a writer) and in front of it (as ditsy princess Kelly Kapoor), Mindy Kaling has perfected her own brand of cringe comedy. On her Fox series, which wraps its first season on May 14, Kaling plays a character who is a lot smarter than Kelly (she’s Dr. Mindy Lahiri, an OB/GYN) but who still has trouble with personal boundaries at her workplace and still has a tumultuous dating life. (The show’s original title was, It’s Messy.) Mindy is more self-aware than most cringe characters – maybe too self-aware, frequently stepping outside herself to comment on her life as if she were the heroine of a romantic comedy movie.
Of course, the gap between her own optimistic drive for self-improvement, to live up to those ideals (the project of the title) and how far she falls short, given her tendency to backslide into shameful bad habits, is a classic source of cringe chuckles. The character blends Kelly Kapoor’s cheery self-absorption with Leslie Knope’s bossy boosterism and Hannah Horvath’s gift for romantic self-destruction, but she remains a unique creation that matches the persona Kaling has established in her books and interviews, mixing girlish self-assurance with wry puzzlement. It’s a persona that suggests a bright future for cringe comedy, one where painful failure is tempered by chirpy optimism.