When The Mindy Project premiered on Fox in fall 2012, it was widely hailed as a breakthrough in the diversity of mainstream television. Its star, Mindy Kaling, who plays a romantically challenged obstetrician in a New York hospital, became the first woman of color to create, helm and star in a successful sitcom on a major network.
But even as the broadcast networks overall are showcasing more minority actors in scripted programming than ever, Kaling is facing mounting criticism that her own sitcom isn't diverse enough. Critics and other observers have pointed out that the popular Indian-American actress and executive producer with 2.8 million Twitter followers has surrounded her prime-time fictional self with a mostly white cast.
Unlike many past and present medical shows on network television — a list that includes Grey's Anatomy, Scrubs, House and even E.R. — The Mindy Project does not feature a strong multi-ethnic ensemble. In addition to Kaling's character, the only other minority regular cast member is Xosha Roquemore, who joined the show late in the first season as a sassy nurse.
The percolating issue came to a head last month at a South by Southwest conference in Texas where questions about her casting choices provoked an obscenity-laced response.
"I look at shows on TV, and this is going to sound defensive, but I'm just going to say it: I'm a f**king Indian woman who has her own f**king network television show," Kaling said during the session. "I have four series regulars that are women on my show, and no one asks any of the shows I adore — and I won't name them because they're my friends — why no leads on their shows are women of color, and I'm the one that gets lobbied about these things."
Drawing even closer scrutiny have been Kaling's on-screen boyfriends and lovers — all white. The show has not dodged the subject. In fact, characters have made fun of Kaling's Dr. Mindy Lahiri for her lighter-skinned preferences.
"I think it's too bad that a small minority of people are fixated on the men who are in bed with me," said Kaling in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. "I think that's a bit specific and weird."
But Kaling said she understood that diversity on The Mindy Project has become a hot topic — one that has affected her deeply.
"Ultimately, this is a compliment to the bar that people have set for me," she said. "And that expectation is not one that my peers face. And I have to accept that.
"The fact is, I am so proud to be an Asian American and part of the Asian-America community," she added. "My connection with that community is so strong. It struck me that the show is being characterized as not celebrating that richness. I take that more personally than other things."
Kaling's ethnicity is a key source of humor on the series, and jokes about race and stereotypes are frequent. In an early episode of the first season, her character was thrilled about going out with her colleagues to a club frequented by NBA players. "Black guys love me!" she declared.
"My writing staff and I have been determined to create what is a totally original character," she said. "We've been focused on creating a girl you've never seen before. We're also very determined to show diverse talent. We think that's important."
The tempest swirling around The Mindy Project mirrors a similar one largely weathered by Lena Dunham, the star and creator of HBO's Girls, who was knocked for the show's lack of minority characters in a show set in Brooklyn.
But some say Kaling is being unfairly singled out and held to a higher standard because of her ethnic background. Shows with predominantly white casts, such as CBS' The Big Bang Theory or HBO's Veep, are rarely asked about including multi-ethnic characters.
"There are a lot of white creators and show runners who haven't taken the same heat as Mindy Kaling has," said Darnell Hunt, head of the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA. "On the other hand, when you do something that is groundbreaking and is not business as usual, you raise the expectations of audiences who really want to see more diversity."
Hunt, who was lead author on a just-released study by the center examining diversity in Hollywood, added that "it's unfortunate that Mindy has that weight on her shoulders, but that's the reality. Part of being a trailblazer is being a lightning rod for people to focus their frustrations."
Kaling said she is listening and is determined to press on with her show.
"I have a great job, a great life and a great responsibility, like Spider Man," she said, smiling. "I have to do more, and that's fine. I'm excited about it."