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

The Fox series' creator and star says her character will be more likable this season, and that's a loss for viewers who want to see more three-dimensional women on sitcoms.

AP / Fox

The Mindy Project's main character, Dr. Mindy Lahiri, is a Princeton-educated OB-GYN, and she's the first South Asian-American character to anchor a network sitcom. She is also kind of a jerk.

She loves to gossip. She doesn't really care about climate change. Her personal spirituality extends little beyond an aesthetic appreciation for the various animal-headed Hindu gods. At times, it seems her wardrobe and love life take precedence over her career in medicine. She lies about having kids to get into trendy bars.

To review: disposed to gossip, blasé about the environment, religious when it's convenient, materialistic, often selfish, occasionally dishonest. She's not that different from many of us, if we're being honest. Yet despite her relatably human, almost Seinfeld-ian personality, viewers didn't warm to Mindy in her first season on the air like they did other female sitcom protagonists like Leslie Knope on Parks and Recreation or Pam Halpert on The Office—or other Seinfeld-style male protagonists, like Michael Bluth on Arrested Development or Louie's eponymous Louie. Ratings fluctuated uneasily all season. The show was renewed for a second season, but there was something about the petite, smart-alecky M.D. that didn't widely appeal.

Thus, when The Mindy Project returns tonight, there will have been a major change to the fledgling series: Mindy Lahiri is going to be "likable."

Office alumna Mindy Kaling, creator and star of the semi-autobiographical Fox sitcom, never intended for that to happen. Early on, she cited Larry David's self-parody on Curb Your Enthusiasm as inspiration for her irritating protagonist. "I just try to make her interesting and nuanced," she told one interviewer shortly after The Mindy Project premiered last September. "And if some people think she's obnoxious sometimes, well, people are sometimes obnoxious, and they can still be heroes."

So when she announced earlier this summer that she wanted to make Mindy less unlikable, it came as an unwelcome surprise to many. Her tone was resigned: "As it turns out, you shouldn't be on TV and be like, 'I want to be unlikable,'" she said. "That's one of the things you learn. Unfortunately, if you're a woman, there are some things that people don't want to see."

This is worrisome. The Mindy Project is distinctive because it intentionally subverts sugary rom-com tropes—something Kaling is an expert at identifying and demolishing. Retreating to the safety of female characterization as defined by Rachel, Monica, and Phoebe is not the way to overturn convention. If Kaling is to stand by her original conviction—to pull off the quietly revolutionary feat of playing a funny woman who's just as nuanced and realistically three-dimensional as a Michael Bluth or a Louis C.K.—Mindy needs to stay obnoxious.

Why do we need more funny, nuanced women on TV? There's a simple answer, and a complex one. The simple answer: to rectify a double standard. Jerry Seinfeld was allowed to be an obnoxious hero, but Mindy Lahiri is apparently not. (It's worth noting that, according to many, Seinfeld was the first show to lend a central focus to totally unlikable characters. And yes, early critics panned "the show about nothing" as insipid, even the death throes of network television. Today, though, Seinfeld is credited with reviving the American sitcom, setting the tone for a generation of award-winners like Arrested Development30 Rock, and The Office. Flavors of Seinfeld are even detectable in Dunham's equally New York-centric Girls.)

The complex answer runs deeper: to change, ameliorate, or even eliminate the formula for women on television. Because even in the post-Liz Lemon world, stereotypes that demean the intellect and emotional profundity of women pervade. Sitcoms have an oft-underestimated power to dissolve some of the more ingrained gender conventions: The Mary Tyler Moore Show mainstreamed the concept of working women. Full House introduced America to a single dad filling traditionally maternal roles. Relaxing social and behavioral expectations of women in television—allowing them to occupy a moral milieu, or just be annoying from time to time—might have a similar, real-world impact.

The notion of an annoying hero is hardly revolutionary, especially to those who have followed Kaling's career. As an Emmy-nominated writer and performer on The Office, she had a hand in making hapless regional manager Michael Scott one of the most identifiably unpleasant yet totally beloved antiheroes on American television. The episode when Michael demands sympathy for burning his foot on a George Foreman grill he's irresponsibly placed at his bedside? Kaling wrote that. Deliciously dark, comically self-centered characters are her specialty.

Women in many of this generation's the most popular sitcoms, though, often fall into one of two camps: "good girls" and "bad girls." Good girls like Rachel Green (Friends), Ellen Morgan (Ellen), Leslie Knope (Parks and Recreation), Pam Halpert (The Office), and Jess Day (New Girl) are beloved for their wide-eyed earnestness, which can cultivate a fierce protectiveness in fans that's been known to manifest itself in entire Internet communities devoted to, say, hashing out the legitimacy of Ross and Rachel. Bad girls like Dee Reynolds (It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia), Elaine Benes (Seinfeld), Jenna Maroney (30 Rock), Lindsay Bluth-Fünke (Arrested Development), and even Kaling's Kelly Kapoor (The Office), on the other hand, are intensely, almost cartoonishly unlikable. They're shrill, juvenile, oblivious, and narcissistic, but unapologetically so. And their unbridled confidence can be instrumental in creating delectable schadenfreude.

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 Girls—which, 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 foils—usually supporting characters—have 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.