Television

Maybe We Were Wrong About Mindy Kaling

She’s hit her stride in a surprising, very satisfying way.

A portrait of Mindy Kaling from the shoulders up, with stills from Never Have I Ever (picturing its three teen stars) and The Sex Lives of College Girls (picturing its four leads huddled in laughter) behind her.
Mindy Kaling pivoted to YA. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images, Netflix, and HBO Max.

As a romance device, not everyone buys into the idea of destiny. But in real life, certain things seem, if not destined, inevitable in some way. For a long time, Mindy Kaling’s professional destiny felt like one of these things: To fans of the writer-performer’s love-obsessed screenwriting and essays, it seemed obvious that after The Office, she was going to write romantic comedies. Those scripts would seamlessly beget generation-defining films, and then it was only a matter of time before she took her spot in the pantheon of rom-com legends alongside Nora and Nancy.

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That’s not exactly what’s happened so far. Kaling kept busy immediately post-Office, coming out with shows like The Mindy Project and Champions (it lasted for a season on NBC) as well as, a few years later, a miniseries remake of Four Weddings and a Funeral and a feature film, Late Night. None of them was that slam-dunk rom-com that I, or the rest of the considerable world of people like me, had been expecting: Four Weddings, a flop with critics, is best forgotten, and Mindy Project and Late Night were more workplace comedies than rom-coms. Perhaps more importantly, they also weren’t as good as I wanted them to be.

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By 2020, my devotion to Kaling’s work, which I previously would have described as extreme, was waning—that is, until that summer, when Netflix released Never Have I Ever, a completely charming series she co-created (with Lang Fisher) centered on an Indian American teenager who is balancing her hormonal urges with the grief of a family tragedy and a full load of AP classes. Main character Devi is described in voice-over as a “hothead,” and the show enlists a kindred spirit, the actual tennis champion John McEnroe, to narrate. It’s a little wacky, but the dialogue is killer, and if the show ever veers into corny territory, it works because it’s about (and, I reluctantly admit, for) teenagers. Never Have I Ever was what I’d been waiting for—a work that finally reflected what Kaling was capable of, without the inconsistencies or false notes of her earlier post-Office projects. A second, also-excellent season followed in 2021.

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Then November brought another new show Kaling co-created, HBO Max’s The Sex Lives of College Girls. It, too, is great: It’s empowering and full of life lessons, but it’s also actually funny and good at depicting both young female friendship and the difficulty of adjusting to college life. Its concept, following the lives and lusts of a diverse quartet of female freshman roommates, may sound a little cookie-cutter, but the four leads are so winning and the execution such a departure from self-consciously edgy teen fare like Euphoria and Gossip Girl that watching it is pure pleasure, and each episode goes down like a bonbon. Sex Lives quietly debuted in November, but its ratings were some of HBO Max’s best, and anecdotally, it seems like the sleeper everyone either stumbled upon over the holidays or will stumble upon in the coming weeks as they catch up on last year’s shows, and will then proceed to immediately recommend to their group texts once they’ve mainlined all 10 episodes.

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Never and Sex Lives got the best reviews Kaling’s had in years. She appears to be hitting her stride creatively, and it’s exciting to see. But these shows also stand out as something else. All this time, we’d been waiting for Kaling to write the next great American rom-com, but evidence is quickly mounting that her greatest talents lie elsewhere: Maybe instead of high priestess of the rom-com, she’s turning out to be a bard of young adulthood.

Kaling herself might interject that she never intended to be a rom-com queen. “I talk about my love of romantic comedies because I, like a lot of people who work in the genre, like them,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 2019, while she was promoting her Four Weddings and a Funeral remake, aka the most straightforward rom-com she’s ever made. “But I feel like the way I’m categorized in press is ‘obsessive, encyclopedic fan Mindy Kaling,’ because those are the only questions I’m asked. I love the genre. I think it’s fantastic. But I feel like I’ve talked about this a lot.” To some degree, a close read of a lot of Kaling’s work contradicts the idea that this is merely a press obsession, but it also seems clear that beleaguered rom-com fans like me did project an image on her that she has no obligation to realize. This makes me regret spending so long dreaming of that perfect rom-com I knew she had in her, but appreciate the pivot she’s made all the more.

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Her recent success also doesn’t represent a complete break from the past (or her imagined future). Much of the specific kind of talent it takes to write good romantic comedy is no doubt also applicable to writing teen stories, which tend to contain a healthy portion of romance. In Never Have I Ever, after all, Kaling gives us Paxton Hall-Yoshida, a Voltron of every great teen crush (who, winkingly, was 29 when the first season came out), and The Sex Lives of College Girls has four main characters, each with her own exciting romantic entanglements to enjoy. But the shows are also more than that, as the best rom-coms are, and always have been. Kaling, along with her co-creators and writing teams, seized the chance to write about all the things she’s always cared about—identity, womanhood, confronting one’s flaws, competitiveness, family, friends, disappointment, revenge (to name a few)—without the pressure of the whole “Mindy Kaling, rom-com goddess” thing that I, and everyone else, was guilty of thrusting upon her. I should confess I still do think she’s going to write a great rom-com one day. (Sorry, Mindy.) But until then, I’ll happily embrace this new phase: Goodbye, Mindy Ephron. Hello, Mindy the Gen Z whisperer.

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