Not At The TCAs: Why “The Mindy Project” should be a much bigger endeavor

I’m not at The Television Critics Association Summer 2012 press tour, for a variety of reasons that are insanely uninteresting to anyone who isn’t me. I just bring up my lack of presence since this entry derives from something said in that room that I’ve only heard transmitted second-hand via the power of Twitter. I don’t consider the source invalid or misleading, but it’s worth pointing all this up front anyways.

In the middle of today’s FOX all-day event, network president Kevin Reilly held a Q&A with the assembled critics, journalists, and other sundry individuals who happened to be in the ballroom. The biggest headlines from this session came with the announcement that Mariah Carey would be joining “American Idol” this season, but the bigger story lies in Reilly’s apparently lack of knowledge about the state of females in FOX television as a whole. When ThinkProgress’ Alyssa Rosenberg asked Reilly about the gender composition of those employed under him, Reilly replied, “I’ve never really had that issue put before me before.” That would be a fine answer if the next sentences led to a careful delineation of the demographics under his wing, numbers and figures finally released after a member of the press actually asked about it. But no: He had no answer, and by every account I’ve seen had little actual knowledge upon which to even hazard a guess.

It’s not like no one has ever conducted just such a study. In fact, Rosenberg’s question stemmed from research conducted by San Diego State University’s Center For The Study of Women in Television in Film.  My colleague Mo Ryan helpfully tweeted the relevant info mere minutes after Rosenberg asked her question. The key takeaway? In the 2010-2011 season, “The representation of behind-the-scenes women differs substantially by network. Women accounted for 28% of behind-the-scenes individuals at CW and ABC, followed by 26% at CBS, 22% at NBC, and 18% at Fox.” You can find a deeper breakdown over at Mo’s blog here.  The point is clear: This means the information is 1) out there, 2) shows that FOX is dead last by a fairly sizable margin, and 3) Reilly either didn’t know about it or didn’t care to do anything about it. You can decide for yourself which one is the greater crime without trying to get into his mind and decide which is actually the truth. It’s not especially pretty either way.

the-mindy-project-image1.jpgIt’s especially disheartening, and yet slightly illuminating, to hear such comments come out the same day that FOX trotted out “The Mindy Project,” a highly anticipated new show by former “The Office” writer/star Mindy Kaling. The idea of a show created by and starring one of the smartest female comedic voices today sounds like a slam dunk. The idea that she’s playing an OB/GYN is even better: in an age in which men love to profess their knowledge about what women should do with their own bodies, who better than Kaling to slip in subtle (or not-so-subtle) messages about reproductive issues amidst whatever comic situations she might dream up? There’s plenty of shouting about this topic, but very little conversation about it, especially in popular culture. Louis CK has show has valuable it is to give both sides of an argument equal footing, and Kaling has the smarts to do just that as well.

But the pilot itself is…a letdown, at least at this stage. This isn’t a review of the pilot (which revealed major casting changes at today’s TCA panel and will most definitely be reshot to some degree, as with all pilot screeners at this stage of the game), but rather an observation about the personality-less piece of TV I watched a few weeks back. It’s a pilot in which her status as a doctor is almost an afterthought, a note that gives slight color to her rom-com obsessed heroine. “The Mindy Project” is attempting “Girls”-esque anti-humor on a major network, and while the idea is laudable, there are enough rough edges sawed off in this pilot to give me pause. Why get into business with this talented writer/actor with this premise and then…do almost nothing with either?

“The Mindy Project” shouldn’t be judged entirely on what critics have seen, or what the rest of the country will eventually see when the finished pilot airs this Fall. I have hopes that by Thanksgiving, it will be one of my Must See shows. But while it could possibly be a ratings hit shying away from every single concept that seems inherently interesting, and might bump that miserable 18% number up by proxy, there’s a difference between simply adding women and/or people of color to a writer’s room and adding perspective to a writer’s room. Kaling’s perspective is what makes her valuable, and what makes her exciting.

Ultimately, It’s not about bringing up the numbers to avoid being asked awkward questions at a TCA executive session. It’s about raising the quality and variety of the stories being told on network television. Hiring more women won’t automatically create an unimpeachable slew of new programs. But both networks and audiences will be surprised by how many stories they have yet to actually hear. Television needs to use “The Mindy Project” as a stepping stone to a much larger, much more important project of their own. Hiring more women isn’t just good publicity. It’s good television.