Mindy on The Mindy Project Needs to Stay Unlikable—for the Good of TV

None of these, technically speaking, are antiheroines. These are mostly proper heroines, mixed with a few petty villainesses we find amusing. So Mindy, who is neither definitively good nor bad, presents a new kind of female sitcom lead, and viewers may not be sure what to make of a leading lady like Mindy. She's exasperating—empirically so—but also human, lovelorn, and self-deprecating. We care about what happens to her. When her handsome, NBA-attorney boyfriend turned out to be a serial cheater and cocaine addict, pulling former Office co-star Ellie Kemper into a hilarious (and violent) love triangle, audiences laughed—hard. But they also empathized. And that confluence of exasperation and endearment makes Mindy something of an antiheroine—which can be confusing, even alienating, in the context of what many thought would be a lighthearted network sitcom.

Drama is the territory of the fully formed, morally complicated antiheroine. Nancy Botwin (Weeds), Olivia Pope (Scandal), Jackie Peyton (Nurse Jackie), and Lady Edith Crawley (Downton Abbey) demonstrate a variety of character flaws complemented by sympathetic motives. Even the diabolical Cersei Lannister (Game of Thrones)—who framed the show's beloved, tragic hero for a crime and indirectly brought about his onscreen beheading—later showed a softer side in a heartfelt monologue on motherly love. In this way, drama accommodates a complexity of character that sitcoms traditionally have not. 

Perhaps the latter has taken a cue from the former and begun to incorporate antiheroines. And perhaps viewers aren't prepared. Criticisms levied at HBO's Girls illustrate this: Girls is not lacking in quality writing, the characters are well cast, and the talent is convincing and capable. But viewers are split on the issue of liking or disliking Hannah Horvath, the show's lead character, played by series creator Lena Dunham. Hannah exhibits neuroses, selfish compulsions, and endearing idiosyncrasies in a combination arguably more complex than any female character in television history. She's messy, literally and figuratively. She repulses and allures simultaneously, a dramatic contradiction further complicated by a Woody Allen-style jocularity and self-awareness. She's a loser, but she's relatable, and maybe a little lovable.

It would be easy to dismiss disinterest in The Mindy Project as sexism, but the likelier culprit is the same viewer apprehensiveness directed at Girlswhich, it seems to me, may be rooted not in bigotry but in unfamiliarity. Sure, audiences may be markedly less open to antiheroic women than they are to antiheroic men; for instance, unlikable, immoral protagonists haven't jeopardized the popularity of shows like Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, Mad Men, and Dexter, among others. But it's important to also consider the infrequency with which antiheroines have appeared in a comedic context. Historically, leading ladies in sitcoms have been necessarily likable (Mary Richards, Julia Sugarbaker, Liz Lemon). Their foilsusually supporting charactershave been largely unlikable, but their actions the stuff of guilty pleasure (Phyllis Lindstrom, Suzanne Sugarbaker, Jenna Maroney). The contrast between the two archetypes was stark. But the new in-between character type presented by Hannah Horvath and Mindy Lahiri is relatively foreign in sitcom settings, and viewers may just be unsure. That trepidation may not be warranted, but it's somewhat understandable.

To be fair, a restructuring of The Mindy Project might work to the show's advantage. A post-Season One reworking paid off for Veep and for Parks and Recreation: On the latter, Leslie Knope evolved from a warmed-over female version of Michael Scott into the peppy, breakfast food-obsessed bureaucrat audiences have grown to love, and the show became one of the most talked-about comedies on the air. It even allowed for one of the few exceptionally well-liked antiheroines in situational comedy to blossom: Aubrey Plaza's perennially deadpan April Ludgate.

Set largely in a private gynecological practice, The Mindy Project's writers have thus far failed to utilize a built-in platform to discuss women's reproductive health in the way Parks and Rec has riffed on women in politics. The will-they-or-won't-they vibe given off by Mindy and her co-worker Danny Castellano (Chris Messina) glaringly contradicts the show's anti-cliché philosophy, and should be redirected, if not scrapped entirely. The number of subplots needs to be dialed back. So it's of course fair to say that The Mindy Project is due for some adjustments. 

Season Two’s premiere presents a Mindy who has certainly changed. For better or worse? It’s too soon to say. New haircut aside, she’s more introspective; maybe not more “likable,” but more self-aware. But by aiming to make Mindy more likable—by toning down a personality that, without which, The Mindy Project wouldn't exist—Kaling risks both altering the essence of the show and missing out on an opportunity to usher in a new era of sitcoms: the era of the complicated woman.

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Jake Flanagin is a writer for The New York Times's Op-Talk.

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