There’s a certain kind of girl who gets to have a rom-com happy ending. She’s tall, willowy, blond and beautiful in a girl-next-door kind of way. She’s disarming but not intimidating; stunning, but doesn’t know it yet. Mindy Kaling is none of these things, and it’s part of what makes The Mindy Project, the first show created by and starring an Indian-American, such a landmark piece of television history. As the show enters its final season, the stage is set for The Mindy Project to crystalize its important legacy.
The Mindy Project embraced its rom-com roots from the beginning. Mindy Kaling’s character, Mindy Lahiri, loves romantic comedies and lives her life as though she’s the Meg Ryan character in a Nora Ephron film. But that’s where the usual tropes end. By virtue of demographics, Lahiri isn’t the usual romantic heroine. Rather than bemoan this, she leans into it, claims it and upends many if not all of the usual rom-com tropes.
Mindy is loud. Mindy is annoying. Mindy is unlikeable. She’s constantly eating, she dresses in matching outfits like a toddler, she’s shallow and excessively vain. She’s self-centered to the point of self-delusion. She dates men who aren’t good for her and when she finally finds the one she loves, she doesn’t get her happy ending. Instead, she realizes how possessive and controlling he is and leaves him, despite having a new baby to care for. For all her flaws, she knows that she’s competent and accomplished and perfectly capable of going it alone.
There’s a lot of pressure to get things right when you’re the first. The Mindy Project was criticized early in its run for only casting white men as romantic leads and for never engaging with the racial politics of those relationships. But as time went on, the show began to address these issues in meaningful and interesting ways. The Mindy Project started to allow Lahiri to grow and change, and recognize that the fantasy of a romantic comedy rarely ever maps evenly onto real life, and that you can’t love a man into being right for you, no matter what the movies tell you.
The Mindy Project has also opened the door a little wider for other Indian-Americans to tell their stories in more clever and nuanced ways. Master of None, the critically acclaimed Netflix show created by and starring Aziz Ansari, owes quite a debt to Mindy’s spunky heroine. Ansari’s Dev is an aspiring actor who is similarly looking for love in a big city and realizing it isn’t quite as easy as the movies he loves make it seem. The two characters couldn’t be more dissimilar if they tried, but it’s exciting that they exist at the same time in the same television landscape: there’s more than one way to exist on television as an Indian-American. Master of None cleverly dealt with that very issue in its season one episode “Indians on TV.” People of all races are allowed to have a multiplicity of experiences.
Although not Indian, Kumail Nanjiani’s The Big Sick is an interesting take on being Pakistani on-screen. Loosely based on his own real life love story, Nanjiani was able to cast himself in the lead role, a feat still too rare for South Asian actors. While the film faced similar criticisms to The Mindy Project regarding its white romantic lead, it was still a coup of sorts: It is rare for the South Asian man to be cast as the love interest or be depicted as desirable in any way that didn’t heavily rely on archaic stereotypes.
The legacy of The Mindy Project lives on in the opportunities it created for other South Asian leads to make space for themselves on TV. Kaling’s little-show-that-could gave us not only the first Indian-American lead, but an accomplished professional woman who got to eat a little too much cake and sleep with the wrong men. It’s exciting that even though Kaling came onto the scene as the only one, she’ll leave with contemporaries ready to continue the work she started in diversifying depictions of Indians on western screens. (Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra, for example, is moving into the third season of her ABC show, Quantico, and is executive producing a new show at the network.)
Meanwhile, a giant congratulations is due to Mindy Lahiri, the fictional doctor in way-too-colorful scrubs who wants nothing more than a sweeping score (and, fine, a huge rock) to mark her happy ending; over the past five years she has helped to usher in stories about one of television’s most neglected audiences. She showed people that Meg Ryan isn’t the only one who gets to have meet-cutes, and that the funny brown girl who loves donuts is worthy of all kinds of romance. She introduced the American public to a new kind of girl next door. Finally.
Catherine Young is a freelance writer from Trinidad and Tobago. She believes cake is better than pie, leggings are pants, and Magic Mike XXL is a slept-on classic. If she ever writes her memoirs, they will be called “Sometimes I Sleep On The Floor.” Read more of her writing on her website, or say hello on Twitter.