Unless there’s an example buried way back in the history of television, Mindy Kaling is the first woman of color to create and star in her own show. But “The Mindy Project” hasn’t had the easiest path since premiering in 2012, and was canceled by Fox after its third season.
And that might be the best thing to ever happen to it.
After “Mindy Project” was canceled, Hulu picked up the series from Universal Television. The resulting Season 4 has, from a critical perspective, represented a major transformation for the show. Unlike “Arrested Development,” which took the freedom it received from Netflix and produced a creatively intriguing, but ultimately self-indulgent and bloated new season, “Mindy” pushed more into the drama realm after moving to Hulu. The show began confronting the real issues underlying the show’s primary romance in a way that brought its writing to a whole new level.
Kaling is quick to credit the escape from network television with the change in creative direction. “The move to Hulu was pivotal, I think, because as I’ve grown as a writer,” she told Indiewire at aTVfest earlier this year. “I put in 13 years on network sitcoms, where there is a real structure and the demands are very clear from the network as to what the show should be. When Hulu happened, it presented an opportunity to say, if what I’ve been wanting to do is write movies, write characters who are doing things that can’t be done on a network sitcom — this is the opportunity to do it on my very own show.”
This led to the creative choice, in Episodes 12 and 13 of Season 4, to put Mindy and Danny, the show’s central couple, through the emotional wringer. “[We decided to] have the characters behave like adults — not like the watered down versions of adults that you see on a lot of TV shows, and behave really true to what their characters would do,” she said. “Which is sometimes hilarious and sometimes selfish, and say things that they wish they didn’t say and regret.”
Baling described the experience of getting the Hulu pickup in two stages: “We [Kaling and co-showrunner Matt Warburton] were very surprised and then instantly went into work mode, which is where I like to live.”
Despite a whopping 26-episode order, Kaling wasn’t daunted. “My mentality is, I’m not married, I don’t have kids, and I don’t know how long that’ll be the situation,” she said. “So for me, 26 episodes is a great opportunity. If someone wants that much of me and my show then you know what? I’m going to give it to them. Because right now, I don’t have something that’s pulling me away emotionally from wanting to focus on that.”
That doesn’t mean she’s eager to repeat such an undertaking. “I love the characters and I love playing this character, so would I do it again? That many? I don’t think I would, but I think it was a great baptism by fire for my staff, to be like, ‘Hey, guys, we went from thinking we wouldn’t have any more episodes to 26 — so let’s work really hard and buckle down.'”
“Mindy Project” is now running the back half of that 26 episode order, with a renewed emphasis on comedy and heightened momentum, as Mindy recommits to the dating life. The impressive guest star roster has included the return of Mark and Jay Duplass, as well as Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Cristin Millioti, Eliza Coupe and others.
Kaling didn’t have answers on where the show might go beyond Season 4: “I’m going to give myself a break and not think about too much further down the road in terms of storylines, until I’m closer to it. Things can change so much, too — it’s good to keep an open mind.”
It’s a process she admits isn’t for everybody. “I think that [“Mad Men” creator] Matt Weiner, he knows exactly what is going to happen and he goes into the room with a real idea. With us, you get the benefit of being like, let’s just see? What do we like to do? And what’s enjoyable?”
New episodes of “The Mindy Project” premiere Tuesdays on Hulu.