I do a lot of thinking, reading, and talking about fictional characters, especially the ones on television. And the concept that a protagonist must be “likeable” is something that I still don’t get, even after all this time. The word has no meaning to me, and I don’t think it has the same meaning to everyone else who’s using it either.
Some cite famous anti-heroes as evidence that a (pretty much always male) character doesn’t have to be likeable – Walter White (Breaking Bad), Don Draper (Mad Men), or Tony from The Sopranos. A year ago, or more accurately, a television season ago, Mindy Kaling made it clear that she was writing her titular protagonist on The Mindy Project in a similar light. Dr. Mindy Lahiri was going to be selfish and obnoxious and realistic, in addition to having some more positive traits. And now, with the show’s rookie year completed, Kaling has been saying that she’s learned this ‘lack of likeability’ wasn’t necessarily the best way to go.
Here’s what I don’t understand: Are any of the aforementioned anti-heroes actually unlikeable? If this were true, then I wouldn’t want to watch a show about any of them, not just The Mindy Project. But unlikeable is not the same thing as imperfect; they’re flawed, they’re not definitively good people, they’re opinionated and selfish, sure, but you know what, so am I, and so is your mother, probably, in some ways. (I don’t know your life, I’m just guessing.) I enjoy seeing those kinds of characters on television, because it’s refreshing after watching seven seasons of Buffy selflessly put her life in danger to save the world from countless apocalypses (apocali?), or President Bartlett and Josh Lyman wholeheartedly fighting for idealistic goals every day of a two-term presidency. I like seeing people who are the cause of their own problems, who deal with them realistically and don’t always learn from their mistakes. Of course these people are still likeable – most of my friends, the real life people I choose to hang out with are the same way. But they’re still witty and endearing and intelligent and people I want to root for, ultimately. That is the sort of character I found in Mindy Lahiri. She strikes me, possibly, as what Lorelai Gilmore might have been like if she hadn’t become a mother – pop culture-obsessed, quick-witted, ambitious, selfish. Almost all of these traits are looked down upon when it comes to female fictional characters; they’re presumed to overshadow any of the character’s better qualities. They aren’t considered “likeable” enough.
So maybe Mindy Lahiri isn’t a traditionally likeable character. Is that really what her show is about? Is that what any show is about? The answer, dear television critics and wannabes, is no. It’s about rooting for someone, regardless of where they’re at in life; it’s about relating to a particular situation or joke or way of handling something, even if you can’t relate to the character as a whole. I can tell you right now that I’ve rooted for many supposedly unlikeable characters, some of them straight up assholes (villains, I believe would be the correct term). I can remember cheering when Spike regained use of his legs on Buffy, even though I knew it would mean bad things for the shows’ ‘good guys’ – Spike wasn’t made out to be a particularly sympathetic character until two seasons later, so why was I so excited? Sometimes the audience roots for someone who isn’t a good person – a likeable person. I can tell you right now that I have friends who are assholes. (I won’t name them here, but there’s a good chance I’ll tell them to their face at some point within the next week.) If I knew Mindy Lahiri, I would want to be that college student who she began mentoring at the end of the season. Not because she’s a good person, or a perfect role model, but because she is someone fun to be around, someone who is challenging and interesting.
It’s disturbing that after a single season on television, Mindy Kaling has said in semi-defeat, “if you’re a women, there are some things that people don’t want to see,” while explaining that her character will be more likeable and respectable in the upcoming season. I’m a firm believer in character growth, even in comedy, (a place where it is often permanently sent to the back burner, though Kaling’s work on The Office proves she, too, understands its significance), so I’m not saying Dr. Lahiri should make like a middle school yearbook and never, ever change. And I trust and respect Mindy Kaling’s decisions as a showrunner and a comedy writer in terms of making choices that will make her show better. But, if Tony Soprano can be beloved, if entire sitcoms can be concentrated around extremely flawed men such as Michael Scott and Jack Donaghy, then I don’t think a show about a woman who is selfishly ambitious, good at her job, and, yes, perhaps a little obnoxious at times, should be that much of a stretch for any TV audience.