Most people know Mindy Kaling as the insufferably clingy, Ryan-obsessed Kelly from The Office. Even putting aside the acting chops it takes to be that utterly sad and annoying, a lot of folks were unaware that Kaling’s talent extends beyond acting, and she actually did a lot of the writing for the hit sitcom.
Fast forward to 2012, where Kaling braved the already crowded TV genre of “Funny, quirky feminine protagonist tries to make it in life and love.” Instead of tuning in to find a cliché, or see our feminine hero relegated to supporting role in her own life by an annoying focus on “finding the guy,” we encounter a strong, intelligent, imperfect, hard-working, loving, motivated character, who happens to be a woman and happens to be an ethnic minority, who is kicking ass all over our television screens.
I was a bit worried about Kaling’s ability to give such a worn-out sitcom format a fresh feel, despite my personal belief that she is an incredibly rare talent. But during last night’s episode, in which Kaling’s character, Dr. Mindy Lahiri, saves her shared OBGYN practice from being poached of patients by a couple of (hilarious) Midwives, I realized I was watching the “There it is!” moment of a fantastically complex and (to the extent TV can be) real portrayal of life as a professional, career-driven woman who simultaneously believes in finding true love but doesn’t needlessly exaggerate the pursuit for the latter. Admittedly, the show simplifies the idea of “having it all,” but to even see that type of character portrayed in a way that differs from the usual is a huge plus and a huge win for Kaling.
The sitcom is both subtly and laugh-out-loud funny, complete with a wide array of weird characters that each get moments to shine and moments of struggle throughout the progression of this first season. The chemistry between the characters is fun to watch, and I suspect it will only grow as the show continues to cement itself.
The great thing about Dr. Mindy Lahiri is how believable she is. We see her have great successes, day-to-day struggles, and sheer meltdowns, but without all the usual crap that comes after. In the debut episode, Mindy gets hammered at her ex’s wedding and grabs the microphone, making a fool of herself as she drunkenly rips apart her former lover. She knows she looks a fool, and so does everyone else, but in that episode and after, she doesn’t endlessly punish herself for it or engage in drawn out self-pity parties. She merely accepts it as a moment of weakness and decides to try to do better going forward. It’s such a simple presentation of a complex idea, and that’s the beauty of it.
But the best part about The Mindy Project is what doesn’t appear on screen. There is next to no discussion about or focus on Mindy’s weight, though given our society’s crazy ideas of body and the propensity for that dialogue to overpower everything else, there certainly could be. There aren’t any dramatic or sad condemnations from our heroine about how she wants to be thinner; no strange diets; no body-shaming, self-loathing, or comparing herself to someone who is thinner. It’s a complete non-issue, save one funny scene where her sort-of-boyfriend Josh accidentally puts on her jeans, which fit him nicely, and she groans out of exasperation while he kind-heartedly laughs. A moment like that could have been used to create a scene of vain despair and the momentary obliteration of Mindy’s self esteem, but instead it leaves us laughing because we see Mindy laughing (read: not freaking out about it). While it’s true that a lot of women struggle with body image issues, so in that sense tackling it in the show would indeed be “real,” I love that instead, it’s simply a part of life that we all know exists but isn’t discussed in much detail by the main character. Because, really, not every TV show about a woman has to include this issue, regardless of how prevalent it is elsewhere. Perhaps by not talking about it, at least a tiny part of the “love your body” mission is being accomplished anyway. Why should Mindy have to focus on the size of her dress when she is so wonderfully doing her thing in other parts of her life?
There’s also the role the male supporting characters play, which I think likewise deserves praise for what it doesn’t do. In an effort to create strong female characters, TV shows and movies often succumb to subjugating the male characters to the female ones, as if the lessening of one sex is necessary for the strengthening of the other. This accomplishes nothing in terms of dismantling the stereotype that women are one of two extremes — meek sexual kittens or ball busting powerhouses. I’m not even talking about dismantling that stereotype in terms of a real life context, although some people look at all entertainment as social commentary. For me, seeing it continuously play out that way in movies and TV simply makes me bored. In reality, women (and their relationships with men) are so much more complicated than that, so seeing that idea embodied on the small screen makes me happy as a viewer and a woman.
The male characters, fellow doctors Castellano and Reed, don’t take a back seat to Mindy’s general awesomeness. There are moments where she oversteps her boundaries, and moments where they do too, but the undertone and ultimate expression of their feelings is mutual respect. There are episodes like last night, where Mindy rushes in to save the day, but as viewers we don’t get the impression that the show is trying to force Mindy to be more “masculine” in order to display that strength. Similarly, the show doesn’t make male characters plummet in order for the female characters to rise. Instead, it plays out like Mindy and her male cohorts are on a seesaw, where the balance sways slightly one way, then the other, based upon the situation and how their respective strengths relate. It doesn’t attempt to completely dispel of gender norms — nor should it have to — but it does accomplish what many shows can’t by creating a relationship that is not negatively but positively affected by those gender norms.
The Mindy Project is, at its most basic, a funny show about a funny and inspiring woman. It seems so down-to-earth and real (minus some of the comic hyperbole) that I have to think that Kaling herself is as kick ass as Dr. Mindy Lahiri.