“The Mindy Project” premiered last September as the first network television show to feature a South Asian-American protagonist. Created by Mindy Kaling, who stars in the Fox sitcom as Dr. Mindy Lahiri, “The Mindy Project” earned both praise and criticism. While many commentators, critics, and fans have been quick to laud Kaling for bringing a complicated, dynamic Indian-American character to the television set, others have condemned Kaling’s character for her vapidity, the lack of diversity in her romantic life, and her somewhat troubled relationship with race. All of these critiques are valid, but as “Slate” noted, “like it or not, The Mindy Project is historic.”
Dr. Mindy Lahiri is an OB-GYN working at a New York City practice, and “The Mindy Project” chronicles her many missteps as she attempts to “have it all:” great career, stellar love life, kicking wardrobe. Of course, the comedic engine of the show turns on the sheer improbability of her ever achieving that balance.
This plot should be familiar to viewers of “30 Rock” and “Parks & Recreation,” although its roots stretch back beyond those two recent comedic gems. But where Liz Lemon was a lovable curmudgeon, and Leslie Knope is an endearing idealist, Mindy is often a clueless narcissist. During the first season of “The Mindy Project,” many critics were unsure of how to deal with such a character. She was brusque and abrupt. She did and said and thought things that women were not supposed to think. And moreover, she was superficial and obsessed with the illusion of the perfect romance, and her interest in a medical career seemed to be primarily fueled by her own vanity. She was neither a model of perfect femininity nor a feminist pioneer. And that’s the point.
“The Mindy Project” is an absurdist television show, and so many of its elements are overblown to epic proportions, but within each of Mindy’s hyperbolic explosions, I can hear the sounds of people I know, of my friends and of myself. It makes me a little uncomfortable to admit that, a little queasy, because we would like to pretend that we are not—at times—vapid, and self-motivated, and more concerned with our own love lives than with the international political climate. Kaling’s character is an extrapolation of some of the worst characteristics of the 21st century 20-something, but she’s not a monster, she’s not a villain, and she’s certainly not unfamiliar. And yet, few people seem willing to go on record about that familiarity.
Nisha Chittal, writing for Racialicious, offers an explanation for the silence: “And Kaling, as a woman of color, faces even more unique challenges. When Lena Dunham launched Girls, Dunham was praised for creating and portraying a character not typically seen on TV screens… Kaling portrays a similarly flawed character, but has not received the same praise. Bloggers and critics hailed Dunham’s characters as relatable, real women. But I haven’t seen one critic yet say “I can see myself in Mindy’s character,” the way many described the appeal of Dunham’s Girls.”
Here’s the thing. Mindy may not be the woman we aspire to be. She’s not super-cutesy, she’s not delicate, and she’s not beloved. But she may just be the woman we ought to admire. For all her narcissism, her vapidity, and her selfishness, she’s just undeniably a badass. She’s bitingly funny, and in the midst of her apparent cluelessness, she delivers some bright flash of insight that cuts right to the core of the moment. She’s clearly done well for herself—I mean, can I have that apartment?!—but she’s also clearly worked for it. Things are not handed to Mindy on a silver platter, and her life doesn’t appear to hang together by magic. And as long as “The Mindy Project” is on air, we can rest assured that there’s at least once nuanced, complicated, messy, and funny-as-hell representation of real women.
Last night, “The Mindy Project” returned to Fox’s schedule for the premiere of its second season, and we’ve been prepped for a few changes as the show continues to develop. We were introduced to James Franco in his guest starring role as Dr. Paul Leotard, the doctor who replaces Mindy at the practice while she’s living in Haiti with her saintly boyfriend. We also see a happier Mindy—at least, on the surface—who seems to be “having it all,” even though she had to leave the country to do so. But we’ve also been told that Kaling will be making her character “more likable,” and as Jake Flanagin noted for The Atlantic, “This is worrisome… If Kaling is to stand by her original conviction—to pull off the quietly revolutionary feat of playing a funny woman who’s just as nuanced and realistically three-dimensional as a Michael Bluth or a Louis C.K.—Mindy needs to stay obnoxious.”
I think I agree, but we’ll see.
Make sure to catch up with Dr. Mindy Lahiri on Tuesdays at 9:30pm EST, on Fox.[divider] [/divider]
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