By GUY AOKI
Over the years, if you’ve read my reviews of various television shows featuring Asian American regulars, you might’ve noticed I’ve often mentioned the order in which their names appeared in the billing (e.g., on “The Mentalist,” Tim Kang’s the third name; on “FlashForward,” John Cho was second). It gives you a sense of the importance of their characters in the larger scheme of things. I was set to do that again when watching the pilot for Fox’s upcoming comedy, “The Mindy Project.” Then I realized for once, I didn’t have to: Mindy Kaling’s the star; her name came first.
Kaling was developed through NBC’s writers program. She joined the writing staff of “The Office,” eventually rising to executive producer and even director for two episodes. This allowed her to get a development deal with the television studio that greenlit “Project.” Oddly, NBC passed on the pilot, but Fox picked it up. As I said when it made the fall schedule in May, Kaling’s no one’s idea of a leading woman. She’s kinda plain, she’s kinda overweight, and with dark skin, she looks very ethnic.
And that’s why her starring in and writing her own show is such a breakthrough. For Asian Americans, it’s the most important series of the year.
In late 1999, when I joined activists of all races in pressuring the top four television networks to create Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) to reshape their corporations to give minorities better opportunities, this is the kind of result I had in mind: An Asian American who spoke without an accent being the star of his or her own show. African Americans and Latinos (“George Lopez Show,” “Ugly Betty,” “Cain”) have broken through, but except for a few episodes of “Dance War: Bruno vs. Carrie Ann [Inaba]” and “Cashmere Mafia” starring Lucy Liu in the spring of 2008, that was it. Until now.
For some reason, Hulu.com has made the pilot episode available for viewing since late last week (thanks to Daniel Mayeda for pointing this out to me; click here to check it out for yourself). Doesn’t this “cannibalize” viewership for its official premiere on Sept. 25, when those with Nielsen-installed equipment will determine its level of success or failure?
In any case, Kaling plays Mindy Lahiri, a doctor at a hospital who’s pretty ditsy (not unlike her “Office” airhead character). She tells us she grew up watching romantic comedies starring Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock and recited the dialogue word-for-word. When, in an elevator, she bumped into a dentist named Tom, who’d just earlier caught her eye (“Saturday Night Live’s” Bill Hader), and both accidentally spilled their files onto the floor, she felt like Bullock. They ended up moving in together, but Tom ended up marrying someone else.
At their wedding reception, Mindy drunkenly “toasted” the couple with sour-grapes stories about Tom saying he initially wanted to have six babies with her, yet later deciding she wasn’t young enough, etc. She leaves the party on a bike, which careens into a pool, and hears from a Barbie doll at the bottom of it that she’d better get her act together.
Mindy scolds one of her assistants for letting in a pregnant, immigrant Middle Eastern woman who has no medical insurance. “More white patients — done,” the assistant notes. “Well, don’t write that!” Mindy tells her, though she looks at her and then nods.
A competitive doctor, Danny Castellano, tells Mindy she’s dressed for a blind date like a female Elton John. Seeking his advice, the assistant reasons, “She didn’t grow up in this country.” Mindy corrects her, “Actually, I did grow up in this country, Betsy, but thank you!”
In so doing, Kaling’s attempting to address race and establish that she’s just as American as anyone else. Good.
Turns out her blind date is played by fellow “Office” cast member Ed Helms (also from the “Hangover” films), who notes his surprise at her demeanor because their mutual friend told him “you could be — not crazy — but dramatic.” “Carl said that?!” she exclaims. “I will kill —” then stops herself short. Pretty funny.
Unfortunately, the Middle Eastern woman’s son calls her at the restaurant. She tries to blow him off since he’s been bugging her all day, but eventually takes the call, telling him, “Max, I am on a date right now! Do you know how difficult it is for a chubby 31-year-old to go on a legit date with a guy who majored in economics at Duke?!”
Helms: “I never told you those things.”
“Actually, I looked you up online, OK? Relax!”
Most of the other lines aren’t that funny, some of them go by too quickly or are hard to understand, and Mindy Lahiri winds up giving in to her passions with men a bit too often (by the end of the episode, which male co-worker has she not made out with?). So I’m not sure if she’ll be seen as a sympathetic character and if people will want to tune in every week. Still, “The Mindy Project” does have a nice lead-in from “New Girl,” so we’ll see in a few weeks.
Sign of the Times? Department: “Sullivan and Son,” the TBS sitcom starring Korean/Irish American Steve Byrne, has been renewed for a second season. Its first episode got 2.5 million viewers (quite good for cable during the summer) and the audience liked what it saw because instead of losing viewers, as is usually the case, its 10-episode run averaged slightly more than 2.5 million fans. This is only the second series starring an Asian American to get a second season (Maggie Q will return on the CW for the third season of “Nikita”; Sammo Hung got two seasons of “Martial Law” on CBS, though he’s not an American).
Really? That Excuse Again? Department: Shortly after the Olympics ended, a video was posted online of an interview swimmer Ryan Lochte’s sister did with a Baltimore television show “Closing Time” in 2008. On it, Megan Lochte talked to the host after just returning from China for the last Olympics and how it was full of “chinks.”
“We were there for a little bit over a week. China was chinked out.”
“Like it was totally like Chinese. Everything. Chinked. There was only chinks everywhere.”
Even after the host told her it wasn’t a good word to use, she didn’t stop: “Chink? But… but like it fits them because they’re like chinks.”
I was pretty shocked at how often she used some variation of the slur and how unapologetic she acted. Two things came to mind: Why was there no outcry over this four years ago when it happened? (Answer: The white press doesn’t usually care about what’s offensive to Asians.) And what was her problem?
Shortly thereafter, Lochte made a public apology to Us Weekly, asserting that it was a planned skit where “the intent was to make fun of the ignorance of people who actually do not have an understanding of other cultures and speak in racist ways… I do see how it was highly offensive to the viewer, but as seen by today’s widespread outrage, it clearly did increase awareness of the ignorance of those who are racist… I realize that in application it did offend people, and for that I apologize.”
Using humor to shine a spotlight on racism. Funny, isn’t that the same excuse Sarah Silverman used after getting in trouble for doing her “chinks” joke on “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” in 2001? And during my debate with her on “Politically Incorrect,” she had the gall to take credit for inspiring a dialogue on race. Just like how Lochte tried to spin it. It’s curious how comedians (or would-bes) use Asians as a vehicle to play those characters in an effort to ferret out “real” racists. You want to really ridicule a racist, ignorant character? Use “the N-word.” We’ll see how the black community feels about your “character,” your performance, and your future.
No Way! Department: As you know, I’ve been following Fox’s cooking competition “Master Chef” primarily because one of its contestants, Vietnamese American Christine Ha, is blind yet her dishes have received universal praise from the three tough judges, including Gordon Ramsay. Early on, when assessing just how far I could expect her to go because of her limitations, I told myself I’d be happy if she made it to the top three. The best cooks seemed to be Becky, the cute 27-year-old from Kansas, and Frank, the Italian American. Finishing alongside them, I thought, would be quite a victory.
But last week, Frank was kicked out of the competition, and Josh, the black contestant from Mississippi who’d already been eliminated but who came back when past losers were given the chance to vie for an open spot, beat him. In the end, the top three finalists were Josh, Becky … and Christine!
The winner gets $250,000 and the publication of a cookbook of personal recipes. Can our girl do it? At this point, I’m actually betting on her. She’s a lot more consistent than her competitor, the judges continually marvel at the flavor of her dishes, and even Ramsay recently told her, “For the first time in this competition, I am speechless!” Tune in Tuesday at 9 p.m. to find out.
Plug Department: A reminder to come meet poet/author Frances Kakugawa at the reading/book signing for “Kapoho: Memoir of a Modern Pompeii” on Saturday, Sept. 15, at the City of Torrance Katy Geissert Civic Center Library (3031 Torrance Blvd. in Torrance) from 1 to 3 p.m. She’ll also answer questions about how encouraging caregivers of Alzheimer’s patients to write poems about their experiences has helped alleviate stress and preserve the memory of their loved ones. For more info, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org, Iku Kiriyama of JAHSSC at email@example.com, or the library at (310) 618-5959.
Guy Aoki, co-founder of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, writes from Glendale. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.