Much like the public persona that star and creator Mindy Kaling has developed for herself, the beauty of the Fox comedy “The Mindy Project” is that there is a considerable amount of heart and social consciousness beneath its pop culture references, stellar clothing and rom-com like situations. As the show ends its third season with Kaling’s character, the wise-beyond-her-words OB/GYN Mindy Lahiri, pregnant and contemplating what a future will be like with her boyfriend Danny (Chris Messina) while also starting her own fertility clinic, Variety talked to Kaling and Ike Barinholtz (who plays registered nurse/sidekick Morgan and also serves as a writer-producer) about the show’s take on women’s liberation, body issues and yes, that sex scene.
One of the major storylines this season has surrounded Mindy’s surprise pregnancy with boyfriend Danny (Chris Messina). Why did you decide to go this route this year?
Kaling: With the two characters, I feel like they’re not using the same rhythm that normal couples would do and I felt that, at the end of the season … they’ve been dating for this amount of time and I didn’t want to be this sweet honeymoon period where they were just this happy couple where there were no roller coasters happening to them. Why would you want to watch a show with two people who are just blissfully in love and care about their problems?
I didn’t want to invent some reason for them to break up and I like this specific kind of challenge because I felt like other people would think it’s too early. It’s not too early! This is about right. I also just thought it was funny that two OB/GYNs would have an unplanned pregnancy together.
You’re also cutting to the chase and not dealing with the traditional comedy format where characters date a few years and then there’s a season of them planning a wedding and then you get to the pregnancy season.
Barinholtz: We already know from the pilot that they have a very interesting, funny relationship. As the first season started going on, we thought, “You know they probably belong together.” By season two, it was a little stop and go for a second, but Mindy’s whole thing is why not accelerate it? It’s like, throw it all up in the air and worry about when it comes down. She just wants to get stuff going. She wants to accelerate the stories. She wants to get to the point.
Do you think this change also reflects the way comedy is changing to incorporate different definitions of a family?
Kaling: I think the conventional way that couples court and then lead into getting married and having children, the way it’s sort of been on television in a traditional way, is sort of used to mimic how Americans do it or the sort of wish fulfillment of how Americans would want to do it. Now, I think that interpretation is also changing. Mindy is not at all like a traditional female lead of a TV show and, I think, there is no reason why she would have to follow the same steps. That would also just have things come too easy for her too, especially since she is a character who wants so badly to go the traditional route for all of that and it’s much more fun to see her not get what she wants.
The show has often poked fun at body issues and the fact that Mindy Kaling is not a stereotypical, skinny actress — or that she doesn’t seem to care that she’s not. Now that the character is pregnant, you dealt with body issues in the episode “What to Expect When You’re Expanding.” Mindy is gaining weight while Danny is fit. Also, Ike’s character Morgan puts on the pounds when he gets a girlfriend. Why decide to tackle that now?
Barinholtz: I think that the twist of Mindy looking the way she looks and not giving a s— about her size for the first three seasons, I think was very funny. But now, all of a sudden when her size is supposed to grow, that’s when she starts realizing oh my God I look like an elephant and my baby daddy is in the best shape of his life and I hate that … Mindy had the idea that Morgan, now that he has a girlfriend, to be that guy who puts on a lot of weight — which is what happened to me. When my wife met me, I had a six pack. Now I have a gut.
But I think it’s funny that Morgan, who has nothing to do with this unborn child, is putting on sympathy weight. So it just seemed to be a confluence of ideas that came together in one sweaty fat suit.
The show also conquers another major women’s lib issue: Having it all. Mindy is trying to start her own business. There’s a line in the episode “Lahiri Family Values” from this season where Mindy says “a woman can have professional ambitions and still have a family. I mean, rich women.”
Kaling: I’m often asked to speak upon these things because I’ve created my own business for myself and I think sometimes we forget that we’re able to balance those. I mean, I don’t have kids, but those who are saying it’s possible are often in a little bit of a rarefied place where they also have the money to do that. It’s not quite such an easy stance to take when you don’t have the same resources. I like to remind people, and I like the show to remind people, that these are rich Manhattanites and to keep an eye on the fact that, especially with social media and these articles and these blogs, that that is not the reality for most women, unfortunately.
And then there’s the episode this season that covered a specific sexual position. The anal sex incident was supposed to be funny, but also received some backlash about whether the act was consensual.
Barinholtz: That was a story idea that I can’t remember if Mindy or [“Mindy Project” writer-exec producer] Charlie Grandy came upon it. I remember when it first happened, it got a big laugh in the room and then it was like OK, let’s move on. But as we talked about it, it became less about the actual act and more about why these characters would or would not want to do this and why their prudence and their religion and their background … I mean, it really got deep because you started peeling away these anal layers, as it were.
Did you expect the backlash?
Barinholtz: By the time you watch it on TV, you’re like it’s fine; no one’s going to care. But then I watched it with my wife and she was like “whoa! This is about anal sex.” It wasn’t until an outside party [saw] it was like, “oh, this is risque for broadcast TV” … I think the version you saw on TV was a far cry from what was at the [writers’] table, which was a lot more vivid and graphic. But I still think it got the message across.
I know you haven’t received a fourth season renewal yet, but have you thought about any social taboos you want to cover next year?
Kaling: We don’t approach stories with “what’s the story that nobody wants to talk about?” I think that the things that we end up discussing tend to overlap with the things that are taboo, but I don’t think that’s how we go about breaking stories. I’m always delighted when it’s something that make people go “wow, I can’t believe they’re going to talk about that.” That, to me, seems exciting.
Inevitably, though, you’ll have to do the episode where the character Mindy gives birth. Please tell me you won’t make it some overly dramatic moment.
Kaling: Yeah, we’re not going to do the heart-wrenching “will she make it” type thing. We’re not talking an episode of “ER” where you’re not sure if Mindy’s going to make it. The tragic heroine dying in childbirth is not where we’re heading.
“The Mindy Project’s” season three finale airs Tuesday, March 24, at 9:30 p.m. on Fox.