How 'The Mindy Project' Embraced And Transcended The Traditional Rom-Com

At first, Mindy Lahiri was an unconventional heroine of a very conventional show. Not anymore.

When Mindy Kaling’s show “The Mindy Project” premiered in 2012, few would have accused it of having an after-school special vibe. Her character, a Manhattan OB/GYN with a romantic comedy addiction and an endless parade of hot (and white) boyfriends, had no concerns outside of getting introduced to NBA players at clubs and running into her ex at a friend’s Thanksgiving. But over the course of five seasons, a move to Hulu, and myriad exclamations of “exsqueeze me??”, the picture has changed.

“When we first started the show, I think, at first, we weren’t talking about [social issues] as much,” writer Ike Barinholtz, who also plays the delightfully awful nurse Morgan Tookers on the show, told The Huffington Post in a phone conversation. “But I think the world’s changed a little bit.”  

Season five of “The Mindy Project” wrapped up on Tuesday with (spoiler alert!) Mindy Lahiri’s just-okay proposal to boyfriend Ben (Bryan Greenberg). Soon after, EW reported that the sitcom would be returning to Hulu for a sixth season, which will also be its last.

In five seasons, “The Mindy Project” has been through more ups and downs than the average TV show; cancelled by Fox after three seasons on the air, the show was picked up by Hulu as a streaming series. There’s been no shortage of drama on-screen as well. Mindy Lahiri, the OB/GYN played by show creator Kaling, has been engaged (several times), had a child, split up with her son’s father, started her own fertility business, and now is poised to be a stepmother to a tween girl. In its first season, the show took flak from critics for being too surface-level, too girly and, oddly enough, too white (especially Mindy’s parade of pale boyfriends). On the verge of its final season, the show has quietly become a consistently political one.

That’s not to say that the show traffics in “Saturday Night Live”-level satire. The presidential election didn’t become a plot point on the fifth season, or even fodder for copious jokes. But increasingly throughout its run, and particularly during its post-Season-3 incarnation on Hulu, “The Mindy Project” has specialized in bold, high-concept episodes that push its protagonist and audience to grapple with race, gender and class privilege.

“I think in earlier seasons of the show, Mindy Kaling wanted to just present a normal sitcom about dating, when she is sort of a nontraditional sitcom lead,” “Mindy” writer Lang Fisher told HuffPost. In the show creators’ eyes, Kaling taking on the role of an adorable rom-com lead, when she doesn’t resemble the typical tiny blonde American romantic heroine, constituted the show’s most potent political message. Not all critics saw it that way.

When she did come under fire for being conventional and yada yada, I think that was upsetting because she’s not conventional. No one else looks like her on TV, particularly when this show started,” said Lang. “I think it was very hard for her to be criticized for that when many other shows with all-white casts were never criticized.”

The show’s early treatments of race bear a whiff of defensiveness, or at least hyperawareness of its detractors. Barinholtz cowrote one of the first episodes that explicitly addressed race: “Mindy Lahiri Is a Racist,” which appeared in Season 2 ― after the show had been knocked around by critics of Mindy’s exclusively white male fellow doctors and romantic interests. “I remember in the writers room that summer, Mindy was like, let’s do a really really funny race episode,” he said.

Ike Barinholtz as Morgan Tookers and Mindy Kaling as Mindy Lahiri in "Mindy's Best Friend" (Episode 513).
Ike Barinholtz as Morgan Tookers and Mindy Kaling as Mindy Lahiri in "Mindy's Best Friend" (Episode 513).

The result: An installment in which an expecting mother endorses Mindy’s practice on her white supremacist parenting blog, inspiring the crunchy liberal midwives in an adjoining office to lead an anti-racism crusade against them. It turns out that it’s being accused of racism that brings out the doctors’ worst impulses: Dr. Danny Castellano (Chris Messina) indignantly protests that (unlike Mindy) he’s dated many non-white people. Mindy thinks her own race precludes the possibility of her racism, even as she talks down to the practice’s black nurse, Tamra (Xosha Roquemore). “Sometimes you can get a little ‘Downton Abbey,’” Tamra points out. 

Somehow, it’s fratty white doctor Peter (Adam Pally) who salvages the practice’s reputation ― he wants to start a mobile service to bring women’s healthcare to underserved communities.

The episode teased out Mindy’s own deeply conservative (“she kind of notoriously thinks Chris Christie is right on,” said Barinholtz) and even racist tendencies. “I went to second base with my friend Korean Justin!” her character brags in front of a PR consultant brought in to fix the practice’s racist reputation. “His hands were so small, they made my boobs look enormous.”

But the episode also highlights the hypocrisy of the virtue-signaling white liberals around her. “Sister Tamra, you work at Shulman & Associates,” one of the white, male midwives urges Tamra at a rally. “Tell us how much it’s like 1950s Birmingham.” He’s not so much offering her a chance to speak as he is pushing her to ventriloquize his own talking points. And while the episode lightly jabbed at critics who seemed to expect far more from her than her white showrunning peers, it also honestly and hilariously explored the problematic beliefs that lie behind the tolerant, egalitarian faces social progressives put out into the world.

It turned out, though, that “The Mindy Project” had more to say about race ― on its own terms this time. Even as headlines about Mindy’s lily-white boyfriends were supplanted by hot takes on newer show, the sitcom was getting more pointed in its social commentary. The show was ready to expand its scope. “We’ve already made the point that she can have a conventional sitcom,” Fisher said. “So… what other points can she make as this character?”

For one thing, the show is ready to get a little weird. “The Mindy Project” follows the romantic comedy model, right down to Mindy’s own conviction that she’s perpetually moments away from finding herself the star in a real-life iteration of the form. The show has always been littered with bizarre meet-cutes and dramatic confessions of long-festering love.

“We’ve paid homage to these different rom-com tropes, and we kind of have just wanted to have a little more fun with some of the weird ones, like the ‘Sliding Doors’ and ‘Groundhog Day,’” Fisher added. Sometimes the lessons are romantic ― forcing Mindy to relive one day until she understands what she did wrong to lead her boyfriend Ben to dump her ― but other times, those tropes are repurposed completely.

In “Mindy Lahiri Is a White Man,” she’s passed over for a second interview for head of obstetrics at the hospital. All the second-round candidates are white men. Even though she eagerly assured the board ― in response to some truly horrifying and possibly illegal questions ― that she could balance the job with motherhood by working instead of exercising, and that she could keep her emotions in check to lead, she was ignored in favor of less-qualified male candidates. “I wish I was a white man,” she sighs before bed that night. And so she wakes up as a white man: Michael Lancaster, played by Ryan Hansen. Suddenly, her life is awesome. Michael’s ex takes care of their kids, and no one is worried that he can’t balance his role as a father with a demanding job. He can get ready for work and look professional in five minutes. He can pee standing up. Her coworkers listen to him respectfully and laugh at his jokes.

Unfortunately for him, Michael can’t really enjoy all this privilege; he’s too aware of the flip side. After another doctor, Dr. Irene Lee, covers for a procedure while Michael is hungover, he realizes that quiet, self-effacing Dr. Lee is a supremely competent and qualified candidate for the head of obstetrics job. As an Indian-American woman, Mindy asked Dr. Lee not to sit near her in the waiting room so people wouldn’t think they were an “Asian clique”; as a white man, he feels thrilled to have the power to get his colleague noticed. Michael coaches his new friend on speaking confidently, grooming herself and dressing herself more attractively, and insists that the board give Dr. Lee a second interview.

Still, Dr. Lee doesn’t get the job ― in fact, the board tries to offer it to Michael, impressed with his dedication to diversity. Apparently it takes more than one woke white man to fix systemic injustice.

Mindy Kaling as Mindy Lahiri, Garret Dillahunt as Jody Kimball-Kinney, and Bryan Greenberg as Ben.
Mindy Kaling as Mindy Lahiri, Garret Dillahunt as Jody Kimball-Kinney, and Bryan Greenberg as Ben.

“There’s a million great things about being a white guy, and that’s just counting the things you can do with your penis,” Michael/Mindy reflects that night. “But the sad thing is having the ability to help other people, and most of the time just not doing it. It’s just so easy not to. Your life is so carefree.” Unusually for a protagonist dealing with a body-switch scenario (see: “Freaky Friday” and “The Switch”), she’s realized that the other person’s life really is as amazing as it seemed to her. Nonetheless, she wants her life back ― despite the disadvantages, she realizes, she likes being an Indian woman.

The episode explores how being a white man both is and isn’t a silver bullet ― even a white doctor who’s losing it mentally and may have killed his wife is more likely to get a management job than an Asian-American woman (after all, his late spouse was “a difficult woman”). But a white man can’t fix oppression with the force of his convictions; it takes more work than that. Plus, it’s hard to remember to do the right thing when the world around you seems relatively pleasant and welcoming.

Ultimately Mindy takes a lesson away from the experience: She befriends Dr. Lee. Only hanging out with white men seemed safer, cloaking her with an aura of simultaneous chillness and importance in a way that being in an “Asian clique” wouldn’t. Now, she’s done playing that game; it didn’t work anyway.

In many ways, as the show takes pains to uncover, Mindy’s problematic views come from a misguided desire to identify with society’s power brokers, to shine as the one worthy woman. She’s driven to be hot, stylish, popular, chill and successful, all in one package; to be Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, and the Gillian Flynn-esque Cool Girl. In another Season 5 episode, “Mindy Lahiri Is a Misogynist,” the male doctors at Shulman & Associates set out to hire another doctor ― a female one. Worried about losing her special spot as the only female doctor in the practice, Mindy tries to push a sweaty, sloppily dressed male doctor who has lost his medical school diploma as a superior choice.

“Mindy, every one of the female candidates was far more qualified than that walking MRSA infection,” Dr. Jeremy Reed (Ed Weeks) points out with withering calm. “Let’s face it: You’re kind of a misogynist.”

A new doctor is hired ― Anna, a gorgeous, chilly blonde ― and Mindy immediately clashes with her new competition, noting in a burgeoning rage that her devoted fan Morgan has already begun sucking up to the new woman doctor. When Mindy misses an appointment, Anna takes her favorite patient; Mindy’s supposedly egalitarian male colleagues snicker over the “catfight” between the two. By the end of the episode, she realizes that she’s only jostling with Anna because the patriarchy has socialized her to do so.

Mindy Kaling as Mindy Lahiri and Rebecca Rittenhouse as Anna in "Dibs" (Episode 511).
Mindy Kaling as Mindy Lahiri and Rebecca Rittenhouse as Anna in "Dibs" (Episode 511).

“I was raised in a system, created by men, that has pitted women against each other,” she proclaims. (You could imagine this Mindy flaunting a brightly colored “The Future Is Female” T-shirt.) She decides to forge a consciously feminist but tenuous peace with the new doctor. It’s not a friendship, but a small, determined step toward smashing the patriarchy. In “Mindy Lahiri Is a Racist,” she goes one step further: Not only is cutting down other women selfish and wrong, she realizes, it’s painfully clear that taking the side of white men didn’t offer her the status she thought it might. All it accomplished was cutting her off from having a support system of other women like her.

Barinholtz told HuffPost that the show tries to avoid “coming off preachy” when incorporating more serious issues into storylines. “I think that’s kind of the death of a sitcom,” he said. But Mindy’s awakening isn’t always subtle. Sometimes, if not most of the time, there are monologues. Mindy’s speech apologizing for mistreating her female colleague is perhaps the least subtle approach to a pro-feminist monologue possible. “I was taught to believe that men can only handle one woman at a time,” she declares. “So it’s not my fault that I was threatened by Anna. It’s the fault of the patriarchy.”  

It’s impossible to miss and difficult to misconstrue the point the show is trying to make when Mindy delivers the moral; the humor comes mostly from hearing moral preaching from a character who is gleefully shallow, politically incorrect and often selfish. “The fact that she is on the wrong side of the issue is what’s surprising and kind of funny about her as a character,” said Fisher. “The moral is always correct, even if she has a hard time getting around to it.”

The essential flavor of the show has remained unchanged, despite its more serious bent. “I think the character is such a deeply ingrained creation of Mindy Kaling that it’s hard for her not to be consistent,” Fisher told HuffPost. “We all have absorbed that character in our bones at this point.” Season 5 of “The Mindy Project” opened with a typically flippant joke: The premiere episode dropped in the midst of election season, and was titled “Decision 2016.” It was about Mindy’s decision between two hot, white male love interests. The show barely touched the election, though other politically minded sitcoms did. Outside of the show, Barinholtz has suggested Mindy Lahiri might be a Trump voter ― and what about Morgan?

“I could see him getting very easily fleeced by Jill Stein,” he suggested. “I could see him writing in someone, writing in, like, Cesar Millan, the Dog Whisperer.”

After five seasons, “The Mindy Project” has never been more well-positioned to take on Trump-era politics. But how can the show make that funny? “Honestly… it’s just so sad,” said Barinholtz. I think we had a joke last year where [Jody] was like, ‘And for the record, I think Donald Trump would be fun as president.’ That joke worked in like, October of 2016. In March or April of 2017, we’re seeing just how much has changed.” 

It’s not just the political context; the show has changed too. Perhaps making the Trump presidency funny in a sitcom universe is impossible, but “The Mindy Project” has a good shot.

You can be highbrow. You can be lowbrow. But can you ever just be brow? Welcome to Middlebrow, a weekly examination of pop culture. Read more here.

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