[Contains spoilers for Season 4, to date, of “The Mindy Project.”]
Co-presented by “The New York Times” and Film Independent LA, LACMA hosted another segment of their “An Evening with…” series this week, this time with the bubbly, funny and smart Mindy Kaling, the star and creator of “The Mindy Project.”
“An Evening with…” is an ongoing series at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) held at the Bing Theater in conjunction with Film Independent. After a screening of one of Kaling’s Hulu episodes of “The Mindy Project,” she sat down for a conversation with film critic Elvis Mitchell.
The talk followed a screening of the mid-season finale of “The Mindy Project,” Season 4, Episode 13, entitled “When Mindy Met Danny.” The episode is a flashback that recalls Mindy’s first day at Schulman and Associates, where she meets her soon-to-be love interest Danny — but far from love at first sight, their polarizing personalities clash as Mindy tries to prove her worth and Danny plans to get rid of her. The episode is bookended by a very real relationship choice — whether Mindy should give up her career and stay home to have more children while Danny works. Mindy must make a choice, amid Danny’s hints and pestering, with Mindy reluctantly making a decision that ends the episode on a melancholy tone.
After the screening, Kaling and Mitchell took the stage, sharing a bottle of wine as they discussed Mindy’s appreciation of the classic sitcom “Wings,” her fangirl tangents on Quentin Tarantino and how “The Office” co-star BJ Novak once fell asleep on Albert Albee at a play. But the most insightful moments included those where she talked about her program and the liberty she has on Hulu, her status as a minority and the frustration that comes with screenwriting.
Kaling was very gracious and content with her move from the Fox network to Hulu, saying that she found working for Hulu more liberating than working on network television, pointing out that the episode that was screened ran 28 minutes — something that would not be possible on the show’s former home, Fox. “The experience on Hulu is really hard because I was on network television for 11 years,” she said. “It’s a little bittersweet to go to a place, after being on network television [for so long] and see what it’s like to have total creative freedom, [it’s] like ‘God, what I have been doing for so many years!'”
While Kaling appreciates the “total creative freedom” that she now has, Mitchell pointed out how the episode “How Mindy Met Danny” exhibits a shade of sadness counter to the show’s frequently light tone. He continued to say how, under Hulu, Kaling seems to be able to “mix tones,” which gives the show the opportunity to “breathe a little more.”
Jokingly, Kaling remarked, “You can’t end every episode with a Sam Smith song and the lead actress crying. It’s a comedy show. [But] I think the fact that we can do it for special episodes is a huge benefit of being on Hulu. I mean, that was not cheerful enough to be the Christmas episode of a network TV show. Sponsors would have been like, ‘Are you out of your fuckin’ mind? We want you to go to Target, not kill yourselves.'”
This freedom has allowed Kaling the liberty to make a more dynamic program that is unrestricted, allowing for her to tread ground that was perhaps not possible under a major network which adheres to a strict paradigm, both in expectations of content and time constraints.
Kaling continued to talk about critical and audience expectations for her character as an Indian-American actress: Kaling would much prefer to play a character that is “venal, selfish, [with] the confidence of a white man,” given that she “came from ‘The Office’ [and] wanted to be Michael Scott,” instead of the Mary Tyler Moore type that some might expect. While some critics of the show lament that she does not “focus on [her] character’s otherness,” for Kaling her race isn’t the “focus of this particular piece of art all the time.”
She elaborated that being a minority and thus expected to acknowledge her race isn’t realistic, as no one goes around telling themselves that they are a minority — it is simply something that just is. She joked that people wanted her to do the “the immigrant’s daughter’s tale,” which is counter to what she is trying to accomplish. However, Kaling related to where this desire to witness the so-called exotic comes from. “It just comes from a good place,” she said. “It’s just people’s hunger to see something different.”
However, Kaling wants a point of commonality for her audience, not through her minority status, and instead feels that relatability is far superior to likeability. “They always talk about likeability as being so important with a female lead,” she said. “I don’t think likeability is as important as relatability. If you can’t relate to an Indian-American doctor, you can relate to her being a mom and wanting to work.”
On writing, Kaling spoke about looking over notes for scripts on “The Mindy Project” and still feeling “blind panic” and pressure to impress, despite having written 24 episodes of “The Office” — a blind panic to which aspiring screenwriters can definitely relate. It was refreshing to hear a writer in the business share her feelings about the process, illustrating the difficulties and stress of writing for the screen even if you’ve been doing it for years.
While Kaling eventually follows through on her projects, saying, “I come from behind, produce a script, get praise or something. It happens to me every single time.” She’s as vulnerable as any writer to the pangs of hopelessness and defeat she might feel, describing them as only she can, despite her success: “I’m fucked, I’m a fraud — what am I doing here?”
“The Mindy Project” Season 4 is currently running on Hulu.