Mindy Kaling on Tackling YA for Netflix and the "Evolution of the Nerd"

Mindy Kaling_22nd Costume Designers Guild Awards - Getty - H 2020

Led by breakouts like the To All The Boys I've Loved Before franchise, Netflix is zeroing in on young adult content and trying to change the industry perception where vp YA and family originals Brian Wright says. "there was a little bit of snobbiness toward YA."

At a Tuesday brunch event hosted by Netflix at West Hollywood's The London Hotel, Wright and vp local language originals Bela Bajaria joined some of their top YA talent and creators, including Mindy Kaling, I Am Not Okay With This co-creator Jonathan Entwistle, Atypical creator Robia Rashid and On My Block actress Jessica Marie Garcia to break down their programming and strategy in a time of increasing diversity in the space. 

Kaling, who exec produced upcoming series Never Have I Ever  — "a show about an Indian family with an Indian teenager just hasn't been done before" — said that in addition to stories with people of color, she also fights for the "evolution of the nerd."  

"Judd [Apatow] did such a great job with Superbad and Booksmart, but we haven't seen an ethnic nerd, and seeing that nerds aren't always the wallflowers or the quiet ones — we're ambitious with obnoxious personalities sometimes and we want to have sex and dreams like all the other kids, but we're often portrayed as stuttering kids on the spectrum," she said.

Kaling, who found her lead actress, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, through a worldwide open casting call of 15,000 people, also noted that "a huge issue in our community and other communities is colorism, you see a certain kind of Indian actor in almost everything — our show is about a Tamil Indian family who are typically South Indians and are dark-skinned. Within our community is a big deal to see a dark-skinned Indian family."

Rashid, as showrunner of a series centered on a teen on the autism spectrum, said the definition of diversity has changed for her as she's taken on a greater responsibility in casting. As casting directors have sent her actors that satisfy only gender and racial diversity, "I had to ask for every character, even if they're not written as having a disability, I'll say, 'Let's see some disabled actors for this role.' I think that's our responsibility as creators to think about that, because otherwise they're not getting brought in and they're there."

Entwistle added that while shooting his show in Pittsburgh, they were surrounded by different classes of people and worked to bring in locals as extras in some of their big scenes to bring in a greater range of class diversity. 

At a time when the streaming wars are reaching their peak and rival Disney+ has a sole focus on family and young adult content, Netflix says the competition has done little to impact its strategy. 

"We think of Disney+ as being very in the family space, and how we define YA I wouldn't say they're quite as much in the YA space," Wright told The Hollywood Reporter. "If you think about the more provocative side of YA I'd say that's not Disney+'s sweet spot, they're a little more on the younger end of that. So it hasn't impacted our strategy, but on the family entertainment side of things it's definitely made us double down our efforts and say 'This is a really important state for people who want to enjoy stuff as a family,' so we're all in on that."

Bajaria added, "in our YA shows we don't talk down or soften, we tackle edgy and interesting topics and the writers really want to explore that in an authentic way. We don't need to try to make it into a general or family audience, so for us it's been continue to back the vision and don't try to over-manufacture or go into a different lane. It's being aware of what they're doing and it's an amazing brand that they have, but ours has really been backing the writers' vision and the tone of how we do YA," to which Wright chimed in, "I would say of the shows profiled here today, I don't think you'd find any of them on Disney+. There'd probably be a little bit too much authenticity."