Ah, The Mindy Project. You love it, you hate it, you want to marry it, you want to banish it to wherever really bad TV shows go to die. Arguably the most genuinely romantic TV series on air right now, and one of the better sitcoms in recent memory, The Mindy Project is also one of the most uneven shows I’ve ever seen. At its best, it is Friends crossed with When Harry Met Sally. At its worst, it’s a show I am ashamed to be even watching, much less liking.
Nor am I alone in this – barely a week goes by without another editorial heralding the merits of the show and urging more people to tune in to the high-buzz, relatively little-seen series. Yet the same columns devote a good amount of space to cataloguing its flaws; there have been multiple pieces discussing the weaknesses in the week-to-week arcs, the unevenness of the writing, and a positive hubbub about Mindy Lahiri’s so-called “likeability” or lack thereof. Very few of these articles, however, have even touched on what is to me the most recurring and troubling flaw in the show.
Since its premiere, The Mindy Project has been lauded as a victory for women, that rare female-created, female-fronted show. Mindy Kaling has near-complete creative control and that is something to be deeply celebrated (and I do, every day). It has been praised moreover for its direct approach to issues of female body size, shape, beauty, and its portrayal of an unapologetically successful, highly intelligent female protagonist. That Mindy Kaling is also a woman of color, thus defeating all Hollywood barriers to women at one go, is just icing on the cake.
For a show often spoken of as feminist and progressive, how many central female characters are there?
How many female-female relationships are there?
(And don’t try to tell me that Betsy or Tamra are central characters. They never have and never will get as much screen time as any of the doctors.)
Besides Mindy, every single main character is male. As well as the majority of the supporting characters.
Across the spectrum of current TV series, I can think of no true parallel. Even cop shows, which tend to heavily male-driven, these days feature at least two central female characters: Castle, Bones, The Blacklist, Intelligence, NCIS, to name just a few, all feature at least two strong, central women. Elementary does feature only one central female character (a major plot weakness on that show’s part, for the record), but has an unusually small central cast made up only of Sherlock, Joan, and detectives Gregson and Bell, and the shadow cast by the superbly written, fully-developed female Moriarty goes a long way toward balancing the scale. Supernatural has no consistent female character, but it is fundamentally about the relationship between two male siblings, and like Elementary, has a much smaller cast of main characters – besides the brothers, only Castiel (Misha Collins) features as heavily.
And as for sitcoms? New Girl has Jess and Cece, Brooklyn Nine-Nine – Stephanie and Amy, Arrested Development – a multitude of women. Two and Half Men was perhaps the closest parallel until it added Amber Tamblyn’s character and her female love interests, but it is a show that is unapologetically about men – hence the title – whereas The Mindy Project is about (a) woman. Even Seinfeld, which featured Elaine as the sole female main character, had a constantly rotating and very present cast of female love interests, fiancés, friends, and etc.
No, The Mindy Project appears to be a rare beast, that female-driven show which fails to represent any relationships between women whatsoever. The first season was not nearly so egregious – Amanda Setton was the gorgeous, ditzy receptionist who got a decent amount of screentime and Mindy had a best friend Gwen, played by Anna Camp. Gwen’s daughter, Mindy’s pregnant teenage patient, Mindy’s college-age mentee, Josh’s girlfriend, Danny’s ex-wife, and other female characters all had single to multiple episode arcs. The supporting characters were fairly evenly split into male and female, and female characters at least showed up in the male characters’ lives. By the second season, Shauna and Gwen were written out, their screentime taken over by Ike Barinholtz’s Morgan (who admittedly is often a delight) and Adam Pally’s Peter (a woefully underused actor and mostly throwaway character). The supporting characters who revolve in and out – the midwives, Mindy’s date of the week, and her various exes – are all men.
Mindy has, apparently no best friend, mentor, coworker on her level, relatives, mentee, neighbor, no friend, for that matter, who is female. Betsy, Beverly, and Tamra have inconsequential roles and next to no relationship with Mindy, particularly compared to the central quartet of Danny, Jeremy, Peter, and Morgan.
It’s a stark state of affairs, but here is the summary: in a show originally lauded as a feminist victory, it’s a man’s world. Not so much in that only men are in positions of power, but in that women do not exist in this world, marginalized so much as to have no screentime at all. I’m not an unadulterated fan of the Bechdel scale – as a way to measure art it is very limited – but if one were to measure The Mindy Project against it, it wouldn’t even register on the charts.
Worse, it’s worth noting (lest one imagine that, women aside, the show is treating its men to well-rounded and diverse relationships) that the series is populated with men who are defined within the show’s structure by their relationship to the female main character. There are no married men or men in a committed relationship – hell, lately none of the guys are even dating. There is no older father or grandfather figure, no younger brother or mentee figure to challenge Mindy in different ways and bring out different sides of her. She is surrounded by a veritable boatload of single men in their 30s and 40s – men, in other words, who are to one extent or another romantic prospects, marriage material. This is a laughably implausible situation, and completely unimaginative plot-wise.
The Mindy Project at its best is one of the smartest, funniest, most “real” shows on television. It contains possibly the sweetest and most perfectly written unfolding romance on television in years (Mindy/Danny). Its dialogue, heart, and romance are solid, sometimes even exceptional. It is, on the whole, a delight. But by making its character landscape and its character relationship types so one-dimensional, so male-dominated, The Mindy Project isn’t just doing a disservice to women, but to itself, for as with any show that leaves out a significant part of the human experience – female-female relationships, and a spectrum of relationships – there’s a heavy toll taken on creative quality.
The Mindy Project runs the risk of condemning itself (Mindy-Danny relationship aside) to hitting just one note over and over if it continues to stick to its one-woman-centric, narrow view. Ed Weeks as Jeremy is wasted as a character week in and week out because his romantic relationship with Mindy has played itself out; for every swoon-worthy scene with Danny, there are scenes in which Morgan is awkwardly hitting on or creeping on Mindy (or lately, Tamra) or Peter is enacting another painful frat-boy scene because the show doesn’t know how to deal with a character who is not a romantic prospect for Mindy.
If the series continues to play out its frenetic merry-go-round of Mindy’s here-today, gone-tomorrow dates, and continues to make the other relationships so one-note without opening itself up to other possibilities, it will always be uneven, and will ultimately spiral downward faster than one can say “feminist representations of women in the media!” For a show that brims with more comic potential and (at its best) emotional intelligence than any other three shows put together, that would be a real waste. Mindy Kaling is an incredible talent and she, and her show, can do better. Here’s hoping that when The Mindy Project returns April 1, launching (or at least delving into) the eagerly-awaited Mindy/Danny romance, it addresses some of its internal problems, and allows there to be depth beyond romantic prospects.