Your favorite sitcoms used to be terrible.
It may be hard to remember, but there was a time that 30 Rock wasn't very good. Seriously. Go back and watch that first season. It's wonky and uneven. The writing isn't as sharp as the show we came to love. Liz Lemon wasn't as zany. The punchlines lagged.
Do the same thing with The Office. The first six-episode season hinted at the show's future comedic brilliance, but otherwise, much of it was slow and awkward.
Parks and Recreation was a creative disaster when it premiered — a copycat of The Office that floundered because it was a poor man's copycat of The Office. Thankfully, the show's creative team learned to write to Amy Poehler's considerable strengths, zapped her of her Michael Scott-aping goofiness, and Parks and Recreation eventually grew into one of the best series on TV.
Fox's New Girl blossomed toward the end of its first season, when Zooey Deschanel's adorkable-ness was dialed down and her roommates' neuroses were turned up.
Even Seinfeld turned off NBC execs so much that the series almost didn't survive past its first five episodes.
Today's new shows don't always have a chance to find their footing. Series now live and die based on early buzz from critics and social media. This is a real shame for sitcoms, which often need time to find their creative voice and rhythm.
Case in point: The Mindy Project, a Fox series that has quietly grown from a charming but slight and clumsy comedy to one of the best new comedies on TV. Fox has taken notice. It's giving the show a special spotlight after American Idol tonight, in a naked ploy to earn the series the fans it deserves. You should take notice, too.
The Mindy Project is the brainchild of creator/writer/star Mindy Kaling, formerly known from her scene-stealing turn as Kelly Kapoor on The Office. In The Mindy Project, Kaling plays a refreshingly original TV character: An OB/GYN who's both unlucky in love and a hopeless romantic. If it's easy to compare Mindy to a Carrie Bradshaw type, it's because she's so transparently trying to live like Carrie Bradshaw.
The Mindy Project is also a stellar workplace comedy, with winning support from Chris Messina (swoon-worthy in his wryness) and Ed Weeks (so vain he make himself swoon) as her partners and foils at the office.
And The Mindy Project nails this critical part of the sitcom equation: It's laugh-out-loud hilarious. The one-liners and non-sequiturs are reason enough to tune in. (A standout example: (i) "If we are indulging in imaginary situations I would like to introduce you to my husband, straight Anderson Cooper.")
In the end, though, it's the journey into Mindy's messy personal life that really makes the series feel fresh. The Mindy Project aspires to be a romantic comedy, but spends much of its time skewering the cliches and schmaltziness that make romantic comedies tick. Take the most recent episode, "The One That Got Away," which guest-starred Seth Rogen as Mindy's childhood crush, now a soldier who's in town for one day on war leave. When Kaling realizes that she only has one day to spend with her rekindled love, she's furious that they won't have time for one of those grand Sex and the City dates involving ice cream-eating giraffes and lazy Sundays napping on couches. What they do have time for is both sweet — a Nora Ephron double feature — and hilarious, as Mindy makes him do all her home repairs before she leaves. And the writing was terrific. (Mindy: "I would rather take my MCAT again than watch Caddyshack." Rogen: "I actually don't know if I can go back [to Afghanistan] and fight my heart out, knowing that an American thinks that.")
It's how the episode wrapped up, however, that was truly special — it essentially subverted every romantic comedy convention. It wasn't neatly tied or schmaltzy. It was romantic, bittersweet, and it rang bitingly true. Rogen's character leaves while Mindy is sleeping because he thinks saying goodbye in person would be too hard. "No one wants to see a guy in the Army cry, because it's just bad for our nation, honestly," he writes in a letter. But rather than leave it at that, or with Kaling staring off misty-eyed into the distance, the episode ends with an unexpectedly hilarious exchange between Mindy and her coworker. "You're gonna cry? You want me to leave?" Messina's character asks. "No," Mindy replies, "but it's weird that your first instinct when a woman is crying is to abandon her."
Why should you be watching The Mindy Project? It's frank while being charming, it showcases one of comedy's smartest voices — and like many of TV's best sitcoms in their early years, it's improving all the time. Kaling may not be the voice of a generation (Lena Dunham can have that) or the witty woman many of us aspire to be (Tina Fey has that sewn up). But Kaling doesn't need the grand labels, and that's what makes her show so great. She's kind of the person we all already are... just a bit funnier.