|Mindy Kaling and Chris Messina in "The Mindy Project"|
When I first heard that Mindy Kaling was branching out from her supporting stint on "The Office" to do her own show, I thought two things: 1) Great! Now I can stop pretending to watch "The Office" (I tried to get into it, but couldn't) and 2) It's gonna be so awesome to see an Indian-American woman (who is actually quite hilarious, at least on twitter) create, write and star in her own comedy series on a major network ("The Mindy Project" on FOX).
After watching a few episodes, I quickly fell in love with Kaling's brand of self-deprecating humor and Tina Fey-esque cheesy bliss. She doesn't take herself too seriously on the show (her character Mindy Lahiri, an accomplished Ob/Gyn, is known to get herself into the most ridiculous situations--like, wrestling with a wild shower head and getting into trouble with a high school principle for handing out condoms to students).
Then, I began to notice a few things. First of all, the writing depends heavily on romantic comedy
clichés (exactly how many times does Mindy have to refer to a romantic comedy and recite lines from Sleepless in Seattle ad nauseum?). After the first time or two, it was funny. After the hundredth time, it became grating and unnecessary. And the way she began to apply various "lessons" from these movies to her own life seemed not only forced but a bit immature. Granted, it works for her socially stunted character, but still seems awkward.
But I still continued to watch the show, because Kaling is really selling this character; she's committed to reviving physical comedy in the way that the late John Ritter once did on Three's Company. Her awkwardness coupled with genuine intelligence makes Lahiri endearing.
There has been another pesky thing about the show that has been bothering me for quite some time. And it reached a fever pitch in last night's episode titled "My Cool Christian Boyfriend." While Kaling's fictional character does a fairly good job being relatable on some level, she spends just as much effort separating herself from any cultural identity. But it's one thing to write a colorless character; it's a whole other thing to carve one specifically representing a race or culture outside what is true.
And that's exactly what is happening on "The Mindy Project." Not only is Lahiri the only character of color on the show (unless her brother, played by the hysterical Utkarsh Ambudkar, makes a two-minute appearance. ALL of Lahiri's friends, love interests and business associates are Caucasian), but she has assumed the identity of someone who is not actually a minority at all. Case in point, in last night's episode Lahiri is riding the train with a Caucasian male, misses her stop and is instantly terrified that she will end up in Brooklyn, home of "colorful" characters. Hold on, Lahiri, you do know you are of color, right? Awkward....
Anyway, I tried to let that thoughtless comment roll off my back, until another one came right behind it (concerning Brooklyn, again). Then the episode cultivated with Lahiri telling her do-gooder love interest (Anders Holm) that Haiti is a "terrible country" after he mentioned he was donating supplies to children there. Again, it's another brass and completely unnecessary comment that seemed cruel and out of place coming from Kaling. Lahiri quickly tries to soften the blow by following it with saying that she is clearly not a racist.
Note: if you have to tell someone you're not racist, it kind of defeats your point.
It's really not important whether your friends look like you, or if you have a forehead tattoo declaring your cultural identity, but it seems mighty weird that Kaling would take this rare opportunity to develop her own show that detaches her from her own community playing a character that looks down at those of other races.
Folks who I've talked to about these issues suggest that perhaps it's not Kaling but the network that may be influencing her casting choices and angles. I'm not denying that this is an impossibility (after all, it is FOX), but this dedicated viewer has flown the coop. Call me when "The Mindy Project" gets back on track and Kaling is free to flex her comedic talent minus the cheap shots.