For eight seasons, fans of "The Office" knew her as Kelly Kapoor, a baby-voiced customer-service rep hopelessly fixated on boys, dating and celebrity gossip. It wasn't a substantial role, but she stole scenes and got big laughs.
Now, Mindy Kaling gets her shot at stardom as the headliner, creator and writer of her own sitcom, Fox's "The Mindy Project," one of the fall's buzziest new shows. And she comes close to hitting it out of the ballpark.
Kaling's new character is Mindy Lahiri, a smart, loquacious New York City OB-GYN who pretty much rocks the workplace, but is a total mess when it comes to dating and relationships.
Seems that the problem can be pegged to a lifelong obsession with romantic comedies -- Tom Hanks was her "first boyfriend" -- and the frustration that comes when big-screen fantasy doesn't sync up with real-life practicality.
Now in her 30s, Mindy thought she had found her Prince Charming, fittingly enough, in a movielike setting: a stalled elevator. But sadly, he ditched her for a younger woman, and, one horrible, drunken wedding toast later, Mindy had a humiliating run-in with the cops.
It's a major wake-up call for our heroine, who figures it's finally time to pull herself together and stop thinking that life follows a happily-ever-after path forged by Meg Ryan and Sandra Bullock. But that's going to be tough to pull off, given that she's prone to bad party-girl habits and impulsive hookups with
Still, she's determined to launch a self-improvement mission, starting with a little pep talk.
"I went to a good college," she says. "I am a doctor ... My body mass index is not great, but I'm not like Precious or anything."
If it sounds like Fox is counting on Kaling to be its next "new girl," you've got the general idea. Like Zooey Deschanel, she oozes a quirky kind of charm that makes you want to root for her. And it's refreshing to find that charm coming from someone who isn't white and/or an underfed hottie like most prime-time leading ladies.
Still, "The Mindy Project" walks a fine line. The uneven pilot episode doesn't quite fire on all cylinders, and it raises concerns that Mindy might plunge too deeply into Ally McBeal-like inanity as she desperately searches for love.
The good news is that Kaling and her writers have crafted a character who is competent at her job, not a goofball in scrubs. And they've offset the show's dreamy sweetness with plenty of snarky bite.
Much of that bite is conveyed through Mindy's friction-filled relationship with fellow doctor Danny Castellano (Chris Messina), a macho, Springsteen-loving blowhard, who, like Mindy, has no filter. To wit: When she asks a co-worker to evaluate the dress she's wearing for a date, he pipes in by saying, "You know what would look really great? If you lost 15 pounds."
Clearly, there's a lot of tension there. And if Mindy's favorite romantic comedies have taught us anything over the years, it's that tension and conflict usually lead to a hookup.
EYEING THE FINISH LINE: Kaling's show doesn't debut until next week, but she does make a brief appearance in Thursday's season opener of "The Office" (9 p.m., NBC). Basically, she's just there to announce that she's taking a new job and to rub it in the noses of the Dunder Mifflin "losers." (Interestingly enough, Ed Helms shows up in the "Mindy" pilot).
If Thursday's laugh-starved opener is any indication, consider it a good thing that "The Office" is calling it a wrap after this season, its ninth. And it doesn't necessarily bode well for a planned spin-off starring Rainn Wilson's Dwight Schrute, who comes off more annoying than amusing. Am I the only one who is over Dwight?
He's featured prominently in a story line that introduces Clark Duke and Jake Lacy as co-workers who become known around the office as the new (and younger) Dwight and Jim (John Krasinski). While Jim pretty much takes it in stride, Dwight is naturally jealous and competitive.
Executive producer Greg Daniels has promised some "creative and explosive" stories as "The Office" makes its final run. Well, um, maybe they'll start with Episode 2.
CHANNEL SURFING: In addition to "The Office," NBC launches two other pieces of its Thursday-night comedy lineup this week as "Up All Night" returns for Season 2 (8:30 p.m.) and "Parks and Recreation" kicks off its postelection season (9:30 p.m.).
If you're wondering what happened to "30 Rock," it won't launch its final season until Oct. 4. In its place over the next two weeks will be a couple of "Saturday Night Live" election specials (8 p.m., NBC) with the sketch comedy series finding the humor in the race for the White House.
In addition, Thursday brings the heartfelt documentary "Don't Divorce Me! Kids' Rules for Parents on Divorce" (6:30 p.m., HBO). Executive-produced by Rosie O'Donnell, the film has more than two dozen children -- ages 5 to 10 -- sharing their feelings about how to make marital splits a little easier on them.
Contact Chuck Barney at email@example.com. Read his TV blog at http://blogs.mercurynews.com/aei/category/tv and follow him at http://twitter.com/chuckbarney, and Facebook at www.facebook.com/BayAreaNewsGroup.ChuckBarney.
'The mindy project'
* * * ½
When: 9:30 p.m., Sept. 25