This week The Mindy Project mined another alternative universe story-line (they also did a Groundhog Day episode in February), this time with more of a political point-of-view. Mindy switches bodies with a white man (played by Ryan Hansen) to explore the buzziest term of the year “white male privilege.” It was an undeniably smart, daring concept for the usually lightweight show to take on, but in terms of landing on its message, the episode just didn’t work for me.
First a couple of things I did like about the episode… Hansen is great at playing a male version of Mindy, and he really captures the joyous spirit that infuses the show because of Kaling’s performance. And the show’s willingness to be experimental has been great (I particularly liked them changing the credits to incorporate Hansen). And Mindy realizing her own subtle sexism towards a fellow female doctor of color is the narrative’s strongest and most grounded element.
But what doesn’t work is the larger statement Kaling wanted to deal with, the privileges of being a white man. She’s applying for a job as the head of her department along with the other OBGYNs at the hospital. Jody seems to be big competition but so are doctors like Irene Lee (Ellen Williams) and old Dr. Ledreau (Fred Grandy being a total weirdo). Jody gets a call back and so does Ledreau (strange considering he already had the job in the 80s), and Mindy questions why no women or minorities were called back. She goes to bed thinking to herself it would be great to be a guy and wakes up as a white man.
At first, some of the observations are pretty on point and funny. But the broader statements the show makes about gender equality sometimes feel like a leap for this show. Mindy questions why she doesn’t get respect from staff when she wants to make an announcement like Hansen’s version does, but we’ve also seen Mindy’s not so professional attitude at work (compared to the completely serious Anna who is unfortunately absent this episode). And thinking back, I don’t remember the women in the office showing the guys the reverence we see in this episode. Tamra’s not above calling out a lot of the guys in the office, and I don’t think Ed Weeks’ Jeremy goes a day at the office without being teased. So is The Mindy Project retconning the show for a political statement or do the producers really feel every one of these characters are as sexist and programmed by society as they are in this episode.
Jeremy is a good character to look at for this episode. He really has been retconned into a complete, overt misogynist in this episode without giving the audience a reason. Jody’s always been a buffoonish and ignorant Ted Baxter type (although they have him turned to 11 this week). But Jeremy isn’t, and this is an assault on the character. It’s a character assassination, and one that didn’t need to happen if the show tried to be a bit subtler in its social commentary.
The board of directors turning down the women are Mad Men level misogynist, easy to spot. Mindy questions if they ask women and men the same questions about family-work life, but they are questions that probably wouldn’t be allowed in most office environments. But in offices with injustices, they are more often micro transgressions which are harder to spot until you really see them from another perspective. And sometimes, those characters don’t even see themselves being sexist. Mindy Project made no attempt to examine that more likely form of sexism, which we all know is alive and well, even with some pretty open minded, liberal people.
The other problem was Mindy’s conclusion that guys need to identify their male privilege and speak up isn’t paid off in a satisfying way. Hansen’s Mindy (named Michael Lancaster) still has the mind of Mindy, so his efforts to help Irene (with a make-over) isn’t an example of a man stepping up as an ally for women. Likewise, he pulls in Tamra, the only other person of color in the office, to help get Irene the job. And yes, the upsetting fact that this is one of the only episodes that has given Xosha Roquemore a lot to play with this season is only magnified here. Mindy Project wants guys to step up, acknowledge their power to empathize with others, but never shows a man capable or willing to make that change. They never enlist Jeremy or Morgan to evolve or make an effort (I also wondered how they would have changed Adam Pally’s Peter), even if the overall outcome for Irene isn’t different. Does The Mindy Project believe men are incapable of changing?
And then there’s the ending, Mindy wanting to be interesting again and returning to her own body. The show says this, but never explores what can be great about being a woman or person of color. What does Mindy find empowering in that part of her identity? There is no self-awareness or growth from Mindy in this episode, only a presentation on screen proving that her original hypothesis about white male privilege being exactly what she initially assumed.
I’m writing this review with great apprehension (I even watched it twice). I know people have seen this as a great episode of the show and important one. And the premise and intention is a positive one. I just feel the execution and delivery of this socio-political issue on the show was poorly handled and underdeveloped. When you do a comedy that aims to make a big statement, the bar is simply higher than when the intention is just for laughs. And the most important thing is to always punch up with clear, direct aim at your target. The Mindy Project were jabbing at air in this episode and wasted what could have been a great premise.
The Mindy Project airs new episodes Tuesdays only on Hulu.