The cast of The Mindy Project
Hello Hyphenites! It may be summer hiatus for most TV shows, but the past two weeks have still put a few South Asian actors in the spotlight. Let’s dive right in.
On the Air:
For those of you who haven’t had a chance to watch Aaron Sorkin’s new series The Newsroom, let me give you a rundown. The show takes place in 2010 and follows Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), a cable news anchor who (correctly, in my opinion) decides that the 24 hour news cycle has completely destroyed national discourse with its junky sensationalism. With the help of his new Executive Producer and Peabody Award winning ex-girlfriend Mackenzie, he tries to make the news, and America, good again.
Every television critic on the planet is up in arms about the, as one Vulture writer put it, “fascinating calamity” that is this show. I have a complicated relationship with it -- I love almost everything that Sorkin has ever written, so watching The Newsroom is a frustrating experience. As each episode plunks along with a tedious metaphor and a condescending pontification, I’ve struggled to figure out what exactly rubs me the wrong way. Here’s the conclusion that I’ve come to in a nutshell: Sorkin’s has always been preachy, but he’s also always brought the audience along with him as allies in the fight for good. This time I feel left behind, because his desire to crucify gossip columnists and everyone who reads them makes it seem like nobody, his audience included, are smart enough to tell the difference between the trivialities of the Real Housewives and the importance of national news. So in the process it sometimes feels like he’s turned the sword on us, accusing an entire generation of fans who were inspired by The West Wing of destroying our national culture, instead of going after seemingly reputable news networks that traffic misinformation.
But I digress.
Dev Patel as Neal Sampat in The Newsroom
One of the show’s stars is Dev Patel (of Slumdog Millionaire fame) who plays Neal, the show’s endearing resident blogger. When I found out that Patel was cast I was really excited that he wasn’t just going to be a one-hit wonder who we would only see again as an aging bodega owner/surprise serial killer on Law and Order -- the kind of episodic show that doesn’t have to make real commitments to integrating actors of color. And with the exception of one initial “I’m going to mistake him for an IT guy to show how much he’s actually not a stereotype!” joke, he hasn’t really fallen into a niche with racial implications, which I appreciate. Neal is pretty much portrayed as a curious, intelligent, optimistic guy who can be somewhat interesting. But even though he gets a decent amount of screen time, I’m just not convinced they know what to do with him yet. At this point, he’s more of a convenient plot device than a character, a person who happens to have just the right contacts in Egypt or just the right technical knowledge about oil rigs to push a news story forward. And while a lot of the characters are still a bit two dimensional, he in particlar doesn't really have any anchor to anything or anyone. Neither he nor the show have really found any solid footing, but I have hope that this will change in the coming weeks.
Most Anticipated This Fall:
Mindy Kaling is most memorable as Kelly Kapoor (and current senior writer) on The Office. Now she’s coming out with a new romantic comedy pilot this fall on FOX called The Mindy Project. I have to say that I absolutely love Mindy Kaling. I think she’s smart, funny, observant, and willing to embrace the rom-com genre and reclaim it for what it has sometimes been in the past -- a place where interesting, complicated women can look for love, and evolve a little along the way.
The Television Critics Association interviewed Kaling during their fall TV previews this week, and everyone was pretty eager to ask Kaling about being an Indian American star of a sitcom, and how that would influence her writing. She replied, “There’s a saying, I think, that I really believe in, sort of in terms of my Indian-ness, which is that I try not to rely on it nor deny it. You know, when it comes up organically in my writing, we can address it.”
I honestly like that answer. One of the things I find most frustrating about South Asian Americans on TV is that they’ve almost always been nomadic side characters or people with anglicized names whose presence is explained away by adoptive parents. It’s like the television world is afraid of opening a can of worms by casting an Indian American with Indian American parents because it will hijack the storyline. That’s why I’m excited for Kaling’s perspective; a more realistic, unhyphenated existence where being Indian American can be part of the story, without being the whole ball of wax.
If I had a nickel for every Asian American actor that was nominated for an Emmy this year, I would have exactly ONE NICKEL. So let’s talk about the lucky lady who scored a nod. This is Archie Punjabi’s third nomination (and could be her second win) for her role as Kalinda Sharma on The Good Wife.
Archie Punjabi as Kalinda Sharma on The Good Wife
If you’re not familiar with the show, Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) is the wife of the Chicago State’s attorney, who after prostitution and bribery scandal that sends her husband to prison, has to start working as a lawyer in a firm run by her former law school flame. It’s part procedural, part family drama, part juicy love triangle, and it’s just a lot of fun to watch. May I add that they also have a talent for filming obscenely steamy sex scenes without ever having to pan below anyone's waist. The Good Wife is soapy and satisfying to the point where it feels ever so slightly like a guilty pleasure, but the writing and acting are both good enough to keep that notion at bay.
Kalinda is one of the most fascinating Indian American characters on television; a tough as nails, enigmatic, and sexually manipulative private investigator who works at Alicia's law firm. I find it intriguing that the role (which is already pretty unorthodox for a female character) called specifically for an Indian American woman -- as of now her ethnicity hasn’t ever been a plot point so I’m curious to see why the creators made that specific choice. Regardless, she’s always played the role with an impenetrable toughnesss, and I'm looking forward to seeing what's next.
Overall I'm really excited about how rich and interesting these roles are -- I think The Mindy Project is going to be really fun, and I have faith that The Newsroom will pick up as it moves towards mid-season. As for whether or not The Good Wife is going to have another unfathomably hot sex scene, I couldn't tell you. But if they created an Emmy category to reward that kind of talent, I wouldn't complain.
The previous issue of Hyphen is available in its entirety for your perusing pleasure. Almost as good as having it right in your hands!