There’s a famous scene at the conclusion of a first-season West Wing episode in which White House chief of staff Leo McGarry, frustrated by President Bartlett’s timidity and caution at governance, hands him a note with a proposed new strategy: “Let Bartlett be Bartlett.” That moment flashed in my mind while reading that Mindy Kaling is “rethinking likability” going into the second season of her ever-evolving Fox sitcom The Mindy Project. In short: her initial notion — which shouldn’t be a radical one — was that the character of Mindy Lahiri didn’t have to be conventionally “likable,” and would in fact be more interesting (and funnier) if she wasn’t, always, all the time. Now Kaling’s walking that back. And that’s a mistake.
Of course, the idea of “Let Mindy be Mindy” doesn’t have to translate to “Let Mindy be an Asshole” — Kaling doesn’t appear to be one, although the snarky swipes (mostly, alas, from dudes) that followed her Mindy Project-pegged New York profile sure as hell wanted to paint her that way. The jist of the jabs was that Kaling was too cocky, too smug, too self-satisfied — because the author of a New York Times best-seller and key writer/producer of a giant sitcom empire had the temerity to suggest things like, “I feel like I can go head-to-head with the best white, male comedy writers that are out there.” That response is insane, of course; as Nisha Chittal wrote in the midst of that swirl of bullshit, “Would the same be said of a successful, self-confident man? Would the same be said of Chuck Lorre or Lee Arohnson? No — a confident man gets a pass, but a confident woman deserves to be criticized and put back in her place.”
And in a weird way, this uncertain and frankly halfhearted reach for “likability” feels borne out of the same impulse. When the show began, Kaling mentioned in several interviews that she’d taken her years of writing for Steve Carell’s Michael Scott on The Office to heart, working from the idea that a show’s protagonist didn’t have to be conventionally sympathetic, but that an audience could find a rooting interest in a character with some (funny) flaws and idiosyncrasies; she also cited the example of Larry David on Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Trouble is, those characters are men, and men on television are allowed to be complicated and nuanced and antiheroic (and wackily sexist and racist, even). Ladies, not so much — at least not in the same ways. “There really isn’t an equivalent framework available for women, who get penalized rather than rewarded for displaying masculine traits like aggression, physical force, ambition, or selfishness,” Alyssa Rosenberg wrote at Slate, an observation that could apply both to Kaling herself and her onscreen avatar. “Shows with difficult female heroines have to travel in a different direction than shows about difficult men do, dismantling distaste for their female characters and building sympathy for them, rather than moving toward a moral revelation about how we’ve fooled ourselves by worshiping that man.”
A year ago, Kaling seemed aware of that challenge, and ready to take it on. “I want her to be realistic and authentic,” she said. “So many of the female characters that I see on TV, they’re just kind of put-upon and boring. They’re so worried about viewers not being able to handle them being nuanced or occasionally selfish. But every woman I know is occasionally selfish — and also can be heroic and funny. I just try to make her interesting and nuanced, and if some people think she’s obnoxious sometimes, well, people are sometimes obnoxious, and they can still be heroes.”
A lot can change in a year. The Mindy Project’s first season was a rocky one, with major cast changes and tonal shifts making the title feel more prescient than was probably intended. But one complaint that remained consistent was that Mindy wasn’t likable — even, inexplicably enough, that “Mindy Lahiri has been an asshole many times over, but it’s not always clear the show knows she is being an asshole.” Telegraph it harder, television!
The point is, it’s still a work-in-progress, and if they’re trying a fresh approach to her character, perhaps it’s just par for the retooling course. But Kaling doesn’t sound very happy about it, and rightfully so.
Unfortunately, if you’re a woman, there are some things that people don’t want to see. There’s a sense of protecting the female character that I hadn’t really anticipated. Some of that is bullshit, and we need to stretch what we expect our female characters to do… We all come from comedy cred, and we have that side of us where we think, “Oh, we should just do edgy stuff.” But at its heart it’s not that kind of show. So the character has evolved a little bit.
Who knows, maybe it’ll take. Maybe the new and improved, well-protected, totally girl-next-door sweetheart iteration of Mindy Lahiri will grab the show a giant audience, and Mindy Kaling will be as big a star as she deserves to be. But it seems more likely that this desperate grab at conventionality will ultimately serve only to rob the show of the singular quality that makes it unique.