Dunder-Mifflin Might Want to Start Pricing Kelly Kapoor’s Going-Away-Party Cake

There’s been enough hand-wringing about the fate of The Office around these parts of late to make the Scranton Strangler blush. Could the show break out of its paralyzing stasis? (Probably not.) Is spinning-off characters into ill-advised new sitcoms the only way to keep the fat and happy cast fat and happy? (Perhaps.) Would anyone ever follow Steve Carell’s lead and escape the sinkhole of ambition, hope, and Herr’s potato chips that is Dunder-Mifflin? As of yesterday, the answer to the latter question appears to be “yes.”

Deadline is reporting that Mindy Kaling has moved her potential starring vehicle from NBC, which paid to develop the project last season, to Fox, which yesterday gave the series a pilot order. It’s a change of network scenery that Kelly Kapoor would heartily endorse, moving from the ratings equivalent of the special-needs classroom to joining the most popular clique on campus. But it does raise questions. First and foremost: What exactly is NBC thinking? Kaling is a homegrown star and, like Tina Fey before her, a triple threat (actor, writer, bestseller-penner) with a strongly delineated point of view. Keeping her in the fold makes sense, and not only because it might be the only way to guarantee future Subtle Sexuality videos. That network head Bob Greenblatt passed on the project — which, according to Deadline, would see Kaling as a “Bridget Jones-type OB/GYN doctor balancing personal and professional life surrounded by quirky co-workers in” wait for it! “a small office” — naturally raises some doubts about its quality. Was the possibility of Dr. Kaling too far a stretch for an actress usually limited to performing variations on the Material Girl?

Perhaps, but it’s unlikely. In real life, Kaling is both smart and savvy — her episodes of The Office have reliably been among the show’s best. It’s hard to imagine that Kaling, the writer, would give Kaling, the star, a part she couldn’t handle. Instead, the decision to let such a valuable free agent walk speaks to the deep rebuilding ahead at the Peacock. As ratings continue to plummet, Greenblatt seems committed to reinventing the network’s comedy brand, moving the focus away from critically acclaimed, cerebral sitcoms like Community and toward a wider — and potentially more lucrative — audience. This pilot season alone has seen him hand development deals to non-niche names like Dane Cook, Snoop Dogg, and Roseanne, as well as throwing ambitious noodles like Sarah Silverman, Anne Heche, and Glee maniac Ryan Murphy against the wall to see if they might stick. In this changing climate, Kaling, with her proven appeal to coastal elites, might appear to be another solid single in a lineup that desperately needs home-run pop.

But the fact that Fox’s Kevin Reilly was so quick to swoop in makes me think that NBC may have massively misjudged. In the old days, Fox, like most networks, had a distinctive brand, and that brand was “youthful irreverence.” Post American Idol, Fox’s new brand is “crushing dominance.” So even from the comfort of his pole position, it’s unlikely Reilly would take a chance on a pricey project just to burnish his twee credentials on The Hairpin. More likely Reilly sees Kaling for what she is: a mass-market talent who’s spent too long playing to the fringes. Despite her New York theater background and vague Apatow association, Kaling has never been a brainy, blogger-approved comedy nerd. Instead, she’s cornered the market on a certain strain of populist feminism, dishing confidently and honestly about hot-button topics ranging from cupcakes to heels. Kaling’s cutesy commercialism — and her 1.6 million Twitter followers — could be a perfect match for Fox’s current comedy hit, The New Girl. Together, she and Zooey Deschanel could articulate a shared vision of smart, successful ladies who are unafraid to play dumb but are spooked at the thought of saying “penis.” (Subtle sexuality, indeed!)

Assuming Kaling’s pilot is picked up to series, it’ll be time to bid farewell to Kelly Kapoor. No doubt greener pastures — and better boyfriends — await. As for NBC, it’ll have even more egg on its face than usual. Allowing the pal you took for granted to flower into a beauty queen with another guy/network is a John Hughes-ian plot straight out of the type of broad sitcom the Peacock is so desperate to create.

Filed Under: Fox, Mindy Kaling, NBC, The office

Andy Greenwald is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ andygreenwald