In a world where representation for South Asians in American television shows consisted of endless 7/11 owners, IT workers, and cab drivers, Mindy Kaling’s “The Mindy Project” was a breath of fresh air. The show introduces Mindy Lahiri (played by Mindy Kaling) as an OB-GYN at a private practice in Manhattan. However, despite having a challenging and fulfilling career, she is trying to figure out who she is and what she wants out of life as she exits her twenties and heads into her thirties.
In its first few seasons, “The Mindy Project” did a stellar job of providing much-needed nuanced representation for first generation South Asian-American women, showing that we are and can be so much more than the “exotic” dancers and quiet nerdy types that we are typically written to be. The opening scene of the pilot episode shows Mindy watching American romantic comedies and hoping for her own happily ever after, an experience that I could certainly relate to but had never actually seen portrayed by an actress that looked like me. From the very first scene, it seemed evident that “The Mindy Project” was going to be a groundbreaking show for the South Asian community.
The show quickly proved itself to be progressive on many other fronts as well. In terms of age, Mindy is shown as a woman in her mid-to-late thirties who is still discovering her identity, making new friends, and meeting new romantic partners. While this is an increasingly common occurrence in American society, the majority of sitcom roles in television for women over the age of 30 are of women who are getting married, having children, settling into their lifetime job, or some other variation of “petering out” in life. The first few seasons of “The Mindy Project” show Mindy repeatedly rejecting the idea of “slowing down” in her thirties, inspiring her viewers to do the same.
The first two seasons of “The Mindy Project” show Mindy to be a lovable mess who never chooses stability over adventure. She dates and breaks up with a variety of men, goes on adventures with her office friends Danny Castellano (played by Chris Messina) and Morgan Tookers (played by Ike Barinholtz), and comes into her own as a healthcare provider. All the while, she reminds us that life is too short not to have two bearclaws a day and that sometimes, when life is too overwhelming, it’s okay to lie on the floor of your office and take the day moment by moment.
At the end of the second season, Mindy starts to show signs of maturing as a professional and an individual, and this comes in tandem with her burgeoning love affair with Danny. Over the course of the third and fourth seasons, Mindy and Danny’s relationship develops profoundly, and we see Mindy for the first time truly falling in love and getting close to her dream of a “happily ever after.” However, the show doesn’t forsake its ethos in favor of a perfect love story, as the end of the third season sees Mindy taking her career to the next level and opening a fertility clinic.
It’s in the fourth season where the show starts to lose its legs. Mindy gets pregnant with Danny’s child and has a beautiful baby boy named Leo, which is when the couple decides to get engaged. However, there’s trouble in paradise when Leo’s birth exposes the two parents’ significantly different expectations for what the rest of Mindy’s life will look like as a mother.
Danny being a traditional Catholic man, assumes without asking that Mindy will say goodbye to her life as a doctor in favor of a life as a mother. Mindy, although she tries at first, cannot commit to that plan and eventually decides that being an OB-GYN is an irreplaceable part of her identity. The two butt heads over Mindy’s life path following Leo’s birth, while behind the scenes, Chris Messina was phasing out as a regular actor on the show. Messina’s departure forced the narrative to take a hard left as Mindy and Danny’s arguments about Mindy being a working mother prove to be irresolvable and they end their engagement.
Danny’s retreat from the show would have presented an excellent opportunity of the South Asian American narrative related to the ending of an engagement: a storyline related to being settled and then unsettled in middle age, and Mindy’s further growth as an independent woman navigating motherhood on her own.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen. The storyline essentially reverts Mindy to her persona from the first two seasons, bringing back numerous love affairs with her coworkers and other men that for one reason or another don’t work out. What’s more: her son and her fertility practice all but disappear from the show. This once groundbreaking, witty, and progressive show is now moving backwards and relying on old tricks to keep its audience.
The show just wrapped its fifth season at the end of March and is slated to air its sixth and final season beginning in September, and truthfully, I’m not looking forward to it as much as I used to. The idea of Mindy as a bubbly and delightfully disastrous young woman made a lot of sense at the onset of the series, but it feels disingenuous that after the main man of the show leaves, Mindy does not maintain any composure or sense of self that she appeared to have developed over the first three and a half seasons.
At the end of the fifth season, there was a hint that Mindy may get married to her latest, seemingly too-perfect nurse boyfriend Ben, but we just can’t get all that excited about it, because we’ve seen it already. Whether she gets married to Ben or not (because, you know, that happened once before) does not ultimately matter. “The Mindy Project” has replaced its ethos that Mindy represents a self-efficacious and multifaceted woman with a message that the only compelling thing about her is watching her stumble through romantic encounter after encounter blindly searching for a Prince Charming to save her from herself. Ironically, a show that was meant to be a breath of fresh air has grown stale – I can only hope that Kaling’s next project picks up where the third season of “The Mindy Project” left off.