Update: Hulu confirmed on May 15 that it has ordered 26 episodes of “The Mindy Project” for a fourth season on the streaming site.
Yesterday dealt a one-two punch with the cancellations of Mindy Kaling’s “The Mindy Project” (Fox) and Cristela Alonzo’s “Cristela” (ABC). That both shows were named after their respective creators/stars is no coincidence. Cable might be the TV auteur’s medium (FX’s “Louie” being the purest example, as Louis C.K. writes, directs, and stars in every episode), but both “Mindy” and “Cristela” were passion projects through which Kaling and Alonzo attempted to shake up the network and pop culture status quo.
“The Mindy Project” wasn’t just fresh but radical in its depiction of a petulant anti-heroine who happened to look unlike most anti-heroes on TV (i.e., white and male). In a wonderfully astute analysis of the series, TV critic Emily Nussbaum recalled an event at The New Yorker Festival in which Kaling explained how her show has so often been misunderstood: “[Kaling’s] idea for [her character] Mindy Lahiri, she said, wasn’t a spunky role model like Mary Tyler Moore. She also wasn’t trying to create a flawed comic protagonist with a voice-of-reason quality, in the tradition of Liz Lemon and Leslie Knope. Instead, she was going for the Michael Scott, the Larry David, the Kenny Powers — truly screwed-up bigots and basket cases who were, nonetheless, the rowdy centers of their respective shows. ‘That felt more fun to me,’ [Kaling] said.”
If Mindy Lahiri was “selfish, cruel, narcissistic, politically clueless or conservative, shallowly money-focussed, and otherwise not a role model,” as many fans and critics accused her of, that’s precisely the point. Kaling throws off the “model minority” myth that afflicts so many Asian-American characters (and real-life individuals) to portray a girly, racially conscious, hilarious jerk at the center of her own show — something you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere else on TV.
“The Mindy Project” may (please please please) find a second life on Hulu. Unfortunately, that won’t be the case with “Cristela,” an intentional throwback to the multi-cam format that Alonzo used to honor her own TV-obsessed childhood. “Alonzo had been a latchkey kid from the age of 6, and television kept her company,” the New York Times reported last year. “It also taught her English; her family spoke only Spanish in the house. And it made her laugh, even on bad days, the days when she and her family had nothing to eat and they all drank coffee instead.”
“It might sound dramatic and a little grandiose,” Alonzo has blogged, “but as a Latina, I would like to be someone that gives a voice to my culture.” She’s definitely achieved that, according to TV critic Sonia Saraiya, who praised “Cristela” for “advancing a Latino family sitcom that makes sharp jokes critical of white privilege” and for its “unsparing look at Latino culture — and the way it’s perceived by others.”
The disappearances of “Mindy” and “Cristela” from the airwaves doesn’t just mean fewer female faces of color, but voices, too. The upcoming TV season may feature many more actors and characters of color, as Deadline so boorishly complained a few weeks ago, but even shows with protagonists of color are predicted to feature predominantly white perspectives behind the scenes. The cancellations of “Mindy” and “Cristela” sting so much because they were two of the exceedingly rare TV shows run by women of color who had things to say and the opportunity to say them to a national audience.
Hopefully Kaling and Alonzo will find new platforms to speak from soon.