Lately I’ve had this lingering sense of something missing in my life. Anticipating the end of summer, perhaps? Nope: It was the lack of Mindy Kaling, soon to be doubly remedied with the premiere of season four of “The Mindy Project,” on Hulu starting on the 15th, plus the release of her new book of essays, “Why Not Me?”, out the same day. Let’s just call it Mindy Day.
Hulu will be releasing one episode per week, and the show has been given an order of 26 episodes — more than any of the previous seasons on Fox, a big vote of confidence from the online network. I really like the fact that they’re not releasing them all in one big glut, too, and I think this may pave the way for other shows to move away from doing that. I’m sure Mindy Lahiri (Kaling’s character) would come up with a spirited defense of binge-watching, but in the real world I think it generally cheapens the whole experience of enjoying a show, especially a lighthearted one like “The Mindy Project.”
That the show was picked up to continue has also been a triumph for Kaling, who was one of two non-white female showrunners to see their shows cancelled by their networks this spring. She has talked often about the burden of being a too-rare representative of women of color in TV comedy. A TPM article by the very smart Samhita Mukhopadhyay cited a couple of her reactions from past years — “In an interview at the Paley Center, she remarked that she is sometimes angry her show isn’t 75 years in the future so she wouldn’t be the first South Asian female showrunner, tasked with representing all South Asians. At a panel at SXSW, she shut down an inquiry about the diversity of her own cast by saying, ‘I’m a fucking Indian woman who has her own fucking network television show, OK?'” — before taking her to task for being so flippant about it. (Another article, on Vice, explores a similar disappointment with Kaling’s refusal to engage with race and insistence on casting white guys as her romantic interests.)
I don’t want to downplay the concerns of Kaling’s critics, especially when we’ve just seen how dismal the numbers of women of color on network TV currently are. But “The Mindy Project” has always been sort of defiantly anti-crusader in tone, focusing instead on the glorious narcissism of its main character. And isn’t this, in its way, groundbreaking too? After all, Kaling doesn’t shy away from the Indian-ness of her character (as you’ll see in my summary of the new episode), and she reliably plays up her Hollywood-atypical body type and skin color as things of beauty. She addressed body issue in a recent Guardian interview:
“Insults about the way I look can’t be the thing that harms me and my heart the most. It has to harm me the least. If I have a daughter, I’m going to tell her that. Far too many women are much more hurt by being called fat or ugly than they are by being called not smart, or not a leader. If someone told me that I was stupid or that I wasn’t a leader, or that I wasn’t witty or quick or perceptive, I’d be devastated. If someone told me that I had a gross body, I’d say, ‘Well, it’s bringing me a lot of happiness.’ Like, I’m having a fine time of it. Having my priorities aligned like that has helped me have a happier life, I think.”
She also referred to her own experience of being a standout, in the comedy world: “a chirpy, Indian improv comedian who was constantly talking was something of a novelty to the scores of wordless men named Brian.” I mean, I think she pretty much staffs her show with wordless men named Brian, but that’s still a priceless observation and, again, one that shows she’s hardly blind to the issue of racial and gender homogeneity in the world of sitcoms.
I’ve been allowed to watch just the first episode of the new season, but it is a very strong indicator that the move away from network can only be a good thing. This is not to say it’s all that different from the previous seasons – it’s really not. But you do get the sense of a little more creative freedom and maybe a dash more raunch: There are two blowjob jokes that may or may not have made it onto conventional TV, one of them told by adorable guest star Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
He plays Mindy’s alternate-reality husband in an episode that is more or less the Mindy version of “It’s a Wonderful Life” — only “in color and not boring,” as her character puts it. Questioning whether her life would be better had she not paired up with Danny Castellano (Chris Messina), she finds herself in a world where she’s married to a reality TV producer (Gordon-Levitt), in an open relationship and sleeping with Mark Duplass’ New Age-y character on the side. Danny, meanwhile, is on the dating market — which opens up another fun cameo, for actress Freida Pinto to play his dinner companion. “People tell me that we look so much alike,” Mindy tells her. “You must hear that too, right?” Meanwhile, the real-life Danny goes on a whirlwind trip to India to inform Mindy’s parents (Sakina Jaffrey and Ajay Mehta) that the two are in love and that he’s the father of her child.
Messina always commands your attention, but the show belongs to Mindy, and its energy level decreases when she’s not onscreen. Kaling addressed her (and her character’s) boundless optimism in another interview while talking about the show’s resurrection:
“I think people might be surprised by this answer, and maybe this is my personality, but I knew that it wasn’t going to be done. I mean, the wonderful thing about our show is our fans are so passionate, they love the show so much, and the kind of talent that we attract to the show, whether it’s Stephen Colbert, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth [Meyers], all these people, I just feel like this can’t be in my imagination. Like, I’m delusional, but only to a degree. People I think are responding to it, and so I never thought that it was going to stop.”
Going forward, the show will see Mindy as a mother (she gives birth in the second episode, apparently), but not — I’m guessing — as an Earth Mother type, given this comment from Kaling at the Television Critics Association fall previews: “She has a kid now and Mindy’s behavior is now, ‘My kid should be a model. My kid should be a child actor.'”
That said, an executive producer made a pretty pointed remark, in the same article, in contrast to Mindy Lahiri’s generally conservative mindset (she’s made reference to handgun ownership in the past, among other issues): “OB’s are like the Republican Party. They only care about the baby until it comes out and then they have no idea. So she’s sort of at square one once the baby pops out.”
I think this is a good indicator that, regardless of Kaling’s insistence on keeping her character as outlandishly egotistical and stubbornly apolitical as ever (she has accused Danny of making up a fictional character called “Hillary Clinton”), she’s got some progressive staff in there, too. Maybe — though I’d hate to see Messina go — one of these days we’ll even see her have a serious nonwhite love interest.