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When then-Office writer, executive producer and actress Mindy Kaling was first developing The Mindy Project back in 2012, she had one guiding principle when it came to her TV heroine.
“I didn’t want things to be easy for her,” the creator, co-showrunner and star tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I just thought, especially if this character’s going to have amazing clothes and a great job, she has to have trials, and so we’ve given them to her – so many.”
The same can be said behind the scenes. Over its five seasons, the single-camera comedy has seen the exits of six series regulars, as well as a rare move from broadcast network Fox to streaming service Hulu. Despite these many trials and tribulations, the show celebrates its 100th episode Tuesday with its midseason finale.
“Evolution, even then, is a good way to think about it, because Mindy treated the show like an experiment,” says co-showrunner Matt Warburton. “The only fixed point is the character of Mindy herself and her journey, and she gave herself the freedom to see where that took us. It has led to the show really changing in several fundamental ways over the course of its run.”
Season One Growing Pains
Some changes happened as far back as the pilot, when Kaling welcomed a group of writers and friends to offer feedback before shooting started.
“For example, Mindy and Danny’s relationship was hinted at in the pilot, but even Mindy wasn’t completely sure if that’s the direction she wanted to go,” Warburton recalls. “We spent a full day discussing it, and a lot of decisions were made that day that we are still living with now.”
The pilot earned a series pickup and made two casting adjustments in its early episodes: Richard Schiff was replaced by Stephen Tobolowsky as Mindy’s boss, while Ike Barinholtz — who also joined the show as a writer and producer — and Beth Grant were added as series regulars. However, Tobolowsky was written out after just a handful of episodes.
“[Then-Fox Entertainment head Kevin Reilly] felt like that character wasn’t working,” Warburton says. “Ultimately, his best note was let’s just have this these doctors have to run the practice on their own. It will give them a little more stakes rather than have someone that they can report to who can fix everything, rather than a Gandalf-type guy.”
Another new direction was the move (slowly) toward a potential Mindy-Danny (Chris Messina) relationship and a move away from Mindy’s friends-with-benefits relationship with her colleague Jeremy (Ed Weeks).
“Initially it was a little worrying because I was like, ‘Oh, OK, that’s interesting, I’m not going to be the love interest anymore. What does that mean? Am I going to be fired?'” Weeks recalls. “It was an insecure time.”
Weeks’ own insecurities ended up finding their way onscreen, particularly once Jeremy ended up taking charge of the ob-gyn office. “Suddenly, here’s this guy who all he wants is respect, and he can’t get any,” Weeks says. “I was like, ‘Now I get it. Now I understand.’ All the insecurities came to the fore — the overeating and all that stuff suddenly made him more fun to play.”
Adds Warburton: “It really helped us unlock Jeremy’s character as the stress-y guy who is always worried that something terrible is going to happen, which ended up being a great thing for Ed to get to play.”
Another major shift came midway through the season when, in addition to the departure of Amanda Setton, Anna Camp’s role as Mindy’s longtime BFF was downgraded from full-time to recurring as the show shifted the focus toward Mindy’s work life and romantic adventures and away from her female friendships.
“There just wasn’t enough room to really service a third world where she’s hanging out with her girlfriends and having adventures with them, sort of like a Sex and the City-type feel,” Warburton remembers. “It took us a while, because Fox initially really, really wanted to hit the going-out-on-the-weekend-with-your-friends element of the show, and so we had to really give it a fair shot. Once they saw it, they agreed with us that part of the show wasn’t as fun as the other things we were doing.”
The many adjustments to story and cast came as the show struggled to stabilize in the ratings. “We were worried about it, and frankly, a lot of it was really coming from the network,” Warburton says. “They were telling us, ‘This has to happen, this has to happen, this has to happen,’ so to us, it was tied more to our survival.”
A Rotating Door
Fox still showed faith in the comedy by giving it a super-size 11-episode back order. The series was eventually picked up for a second season, which saw the promotion of Xosha Roquemore and the addition of Adam Pally to the core cast. Ratings were still lukewarm, but the show was able to draw big names such as James Franco and Seth Rogen for guest-star turns. The Mindy Project earned a season three renewal but again said goodbye to a series regular, Zoe Jarman, and eventually Pally departed, halfway through the season.
“I look at a show like ER, which part of the fabric of the show is they bring in new people, and that seems very true of any work environment you’re in. Especially in a big city like Los Angeles or New York, turnover for people in their 30s is very high,” Kaling says of the cast changes. “I think we just trained the audience that way.”
As Barinholtz explains, “At the end of the day, really, truly – and this is a good thing – the show is about Mindy. It’s not a cute title, it’s her project and her voice, and it’s her POV. Its so unique to her that if you do lose someone or you add someone, it never changes the show too much.”
While the changes on the call sheet made for plenty of headlines about the series early on in its run, Warburton thinks it eventually worked in the comedy’s favor.
“For us, it made a little more exciting because not a lot of shows do that. To me, something that was early on considered a criticism of the show was a cool new innovation – maybe I’m putting on rose-colored glasses here – but the fact that, other than Mindy, you don’t know who’s going to [stay]…it felt realistic,” he says.
“It’s like in your life where you get to see that old friend from college or from high school, you make the most of it and then say goodbye to them again. So on one hand, I am always jealous of shows with incredibly stable casts that all could be in every episode, but given that, I think it’s something unique about our show, that we kind of have people breathing in and out of Mindy’s life.”
Breaking Up Is Hard to Do
The Mindy Project faced two of its biggest challenges at the end of season three, the first being Fox’s decision not to pick up a fourth season. Thankfully, Hulu swept in just nine days later.
“A lot of our audience was already watching the show [in reruns] there. I think once the writing was on the wall for a couple months that Fox might not be bringing us back, beneath the boards, talk had already been happening,” Warburton says.
At the time, Hulu had a handful of original series but had never picked up an existing series before. The streamer was just beginning to wade into big-budget, studio-produced scripted series that would kick off in a big way in 2016 with 11.22.63, The Path, Chance and others.
“When your show is picked up by Hulu because they already like it, that’s just a better place to be, because they choose a thing that was already working and that they already liked,” Warburton says. “So they’re happy to have it and excited by it in a way that was really, really inspiring to us.”
The initial transition was easy enough thanks partly to the fact that Fox gave the show control of all of its social media accounts, and also thanks to Kaling’s own social media imprint – “She’s often our best advertising,” Warburton says – but another challenge lay ahead.
Messina had expressed interest in pursuing films and would subsequently step down from a series regular to recurring halfway through season four, two years into his character’s relationship with Mindy and shortly after the on-screen couple had welcomed a child.
“It was a difficult thing to bring up with [Hulu] because it was one of the first decisions we had to make,” Warburton says. “They are so different that it felt very realistic to us that, once reality set in and especially with their different parenting styles, that something was going to mess this up. I would never say this relationship is over, over, but I think we try to do a good job of showing how these two people’s world views make for an exciting year but maybe not a workable life. So Hulu was really excited about that part of it once we pitched it to them that way.”
The shocking plot twist of Mindy moving out of Danny’s apartment and splitting from the father of her child gave the writers plenty to play out over the 26-episode season four order from Hulu.
“We’re also a show that isn’t dumping all the episodes at once,” Warburton says. “We need people to come back week after week, and I think being able to excite the audience with a serialized story like that really helped us that first season, because the fans can wait with anticipation – are they really doing this week after week? – which hopefully kind of sucked people in as well.”
Messina has continued to appear on the show (as has Pally), and Mindy has since waded back into the dating world with recurring guests like Garret Dillahunt and most recently Bryan Greenberg. (Dillahunt is one of several new heavily recurring characters brought on since season four, the others being Rebecca Rittenhouse and Fortune Feimster; the latter has since been promoted to the main ensemble.)
“When Danny left, for a minute there, we were like, ‘What’s the show now?’ And then I was kind of like, ‘Listen, the show is what it was; the show is about a woman looking for love,’ ” says Barinholtz, now a consulting producer. “Now we have a show which is about a single mother of color looking for love in Manhattan who’s in her mid-30s — that’s kind of interesting. So with every exit or entrance, we’ve had a chance to see how that reflects on Mindy, which is what the show’s about.”
Adds Feimster: “The thing that’s made it last that long is people love Mindy. They love her character, they love who she is as a person outside of the show. I feel like she represents women very well, and she’s a positive role model.”
The significance of showing a single working mother of color looking for love in a TV show, even in 2016, is not lost on the cast and crew.
“The thing I’m most happy about is that feedback we get from real women who will say, like, ‘Thank you for showing this woman who has a kid but can still have a sex life and a dating life and not treat her that like she’s abandoning her child,’ ” Warburton says. “We get to explore a feminist angle on the show that wasn’t the premise of the show from the pilot, and it took a long time to get to that point. I think that’s why it doesn’t happen that often, is that you have to get there over seasons and seasons, and very few people are lucky enough to have that opportunity.”
Season Five (and Beyond)
To hear Kaling tell it, it’s no coincidence that this more nuanced storytelling came at the same time as the show’s move to Hulu. Episodes can now vary in length, unlike on a broadcast network, and the writers have become more ambitious with their storytelling. One upcoming episode for the second half of season five will allow the Mindy character to see what life is like as a white man.
“You have dreams of one day directing movies or writing movies in addition to doing TV, and I think the wonderful thing about Hulu is, it’s really let me express that side of me. The shows are so much more cinematic, the characters are acting so much like real people because of the lack of restrictions that we have, the episodes can be longer. So that has really been able to train me into writing a little bit more for film and making the show cinematic,” says Kaling, who in September sold a feature film script to Fox 2000 for her and Emma Thompson to star in after a heated bidding war. “I never would have been able to do this Ocean’s movie or A Wrinkle in Time if I hadn’t been on Hulu. There’s been so many benefits, but the creative has been the biggest by far.”
As Kaling’s schedule fills up and as the show hits 100 episodes, the question becomes what the future holds for The Mindy Project.
“It’s a catch-22,” Barinholtz says. “You can say, ‘Well, if you’ve been there for a long, long time, you’re going to run out of stories,’ but on the other side of it, the characters – as you learn more and more and they get deeper and richer – you get to pull more stories out of them.”
When asked about what her next goal is for the show, Kaling says she doesn’t have it mapped out quite yet. “Oh my God, I haven’t even thought of the next goal,” she says.
On the bright side, she has already proven how well she does without a road map.
New episodes of The Mindy Project come out Tuesdays on Hulu.
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