After six seasons, two separate networks, and an array of romantic suitors, Mindy Kaling’s groundbreaking series The Mindy Project has finally come to an end.
After 117 episodes, we found out if OB/GYN Mindy Lahiri (Kaling) had to give up the private fertility practice she built from the ground up after her business partner, Jody (Garret Dillahunt), pulled out and moved to Africa. Just kidding! We find out once and for all if she and Danny (Chris Messina), with whom Mindy has will-they-or-won’t-they’d for six seasons, end up together after all.
Spoiler alert, they do, in a cute and ambitious finale that includes Danny’s mother (Rhea Perlman) undergoing a mastectomy, Morgan (Ike Barinholtz) and Tamra (Xosha Roquemore) getting married, and Jeremy (Ed Weeks) transforming into a proper lad, complete with something of a South London accent, in light of his father passing away.
It wasn’t a devastatingly strong end to a show. Every possible uncertainty was tied up in a bow as ridiculously neat as the one Jeremy wears when he dons a tuxedo and snaps back into his uptight self, six minutes after debuting his “urban” look. That Mindy and Danny end up together just like everyone thought they would makes you wonder what happened to all the soliloquizing around what broke them up in the first place: Mindy being an independent single mother who didn’t need a man and who can in fact balance a job, a new business, and a child—no thanks to Season 4 Danny, who was hellbent on knocking Mindy up again and keeping her trapped as a stay-at-home mom. In the very least, the series finale makes you wonder what the show would have been like if Chris Messina had stayed on as a series regular during the fifth season instead of leaving to shoot some movies.
Nonetheless, the series finale was a tidy and satisfying ending to a solid six seasons of television that was essentially a plunge into Kaling’s obsession with romantic comedies, giving us parodic and earnest homages to the greats of the cheesy genre like When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, Pretty Woman, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, etc.
After six years, The Mindy Project leaves us a sort of thorny legacy. The show is no doubt a groundbreaking piece of television that (with the help of other South Asian creatives) finally kicked down the door for representation of South Asians in media.
When Mindy Project first dropped, I watched it because it was unprecedented—for the first time, an Indian American woman was writing and starring in a show on network television (at the time, Fox). Mindy Kaling was momentous proof (for both Hollywood and South Asian immigrant parents) that South Asians can indeed be brilliant and successful writers and protagonists that viewers are invested in. This may be cliché, but with The Mindy Project, there was absolutely the feeling that we (South Asians) made it.
The show was almost exactly what I expected, except for one thing: Race was almost entirely absent from the show. Inherent in being the first of its kind was the fact that Mindy Project would fail to meet some expectations, but that Kaling didn’t address her Indian heritage (aside from referring to herself as an Indian woman) for the first few seasons was strange.
When it comes to stories about people of color, it’s hard to navigate around the stereotypes that have been assigned to your culture while also trying to dig at the tropes that informed it. It’s very possible the omission of Indian culture is based on Kaling’s personal experience growing up. And in some ways, it was a relief that The Mindy Project bypassed interacting with different aspects of Indian culture that are subject to American clichés, like the whole arranged marriage thing that other shows fixate on (although Mindy’s parents on the show were arranged).
By not addressing the one thing that set her character apart from other rom-com leads, Kaling likely bucked the expectations foisted upon her by the kind of people who ask South Asian Americans where they’re “really from” (and/or the expectations from people like me!). But completely sidestepping the conversation, as if race is a zero-sum game or operates in a vacuum, is just as unrealistic as, say, having a wedding break out into song and dance.
The show’s initial nonexistent relationship with race became more disconcerting with its cast of love interests who were only white dudes. Kaling responded to the racial critique of her show saying, “I’m a f—king Indian woman who has her own f—king network television show, OK?” But that the show was a feat in and of itself doesn’t absolve its mishandling of race.
Not only did Mindy only have serious (or fickle but physical) relationships with men (I believe every single potential suitor who was a man of color broke things off with her before they had the opportunity to even lock lips), the show’s initial treatment of nurse Tamra, then the only black character, was essentially one big, sassy stereotype. When you realize that aside from Kaling herself, only one of the nine writers on the show who has written 12 or more episodes is a person of color, Tamra’s reductive introduction to the show is less surprising.
Over time, Tamra became a more multidimensional character, but while the show continued to add characters—like brother-sister pair Jody and Colette Kimball-Kinney, a nurse played by Zoe Jarman (who along with Colette gave us some LGBTQ representation), and doctor Anna Ziev (Rebecca Rittenhouse)—Mindy and Tamra remained the only people of color in the main cast.
Later on, the show did give us meaningful thoughts on the state of America for women of color. Mindy explored her Indian heritage after a potential suitor and fellow South Asian called her a coconut, and the episode, “Mindy Lahiri Is A White Man,” in which Mindy wakes up in the body of a white dude, is a brilliant and succinct exploration of white male privilege.
It seems like every time the show gave us something to be disappointed in, what it said about the culture of the entertainment industry was even more disappointing, which made it paralyzing to be a fan of the show. As easy as it is to call the show out on its limitations, it’s hard to ignore that Kaling likely constantly had to prove to the network (at first Fox, then Hulu) her show’s worth to a broad (read: white) audience, as women creators simply aren’t afforded trust the way their male peers are. There’s an assumption American audiences can only tolerate one or two characters of color in a predominantly white cast—Mindy already took up that space.
To what degree the show’s shortcomings on representation were up to Kaling’s complete discretion or that of network executives, we’ll probably never know.
The important thing is that entertainment and pop culture has come a long way since 2012, and that characters of color are given the space to explore their experience without having to center whiteness the way that The Mindy Project did. Perhaps the best thing to come out of the show is the realization that the South Asian experience isn’t monolithic, and while Mindy Lahiri might be able to have it all, Mindy Kaling can’t do it all. Which means far more opportunities to explore other South Asian American experiences and provide a wider array of representation.
When it comes to figuring out the show’s true legacy (aside from “Beyoncé Pad Thai and “Ex-squeeze me”), I can’t say that we wouldn’t have a Master of None or a Quantico without The Mindy Project. South Asians had been chipping away at the glass ceiling that kept them from being properly included in media. But South Asians being portrayed as normal American people is still in its infancy. With Mindy Lahiri, we got a dark-skinned brown woman with sexual agency who is confident and successful, a divorced single mom who’s self-deprecating but never apologetic. She’s truly a first, one long overdue.
The Mindy Project’s legacy is both the space that it took up, dedicating airtime to the story of a brown woman, and the space it didn’t, the space that will inevitably be covered by other South Asian and South Asian American writers and creators, who will create characters and stories in their own diverse image.