‘The Mindy Project’ Finally Commits — For Better and Worse

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The Mindy Project‘s romantic comedy aspirations have been iffy at best. The genre is certainly in Mindy Kaling’s wheelhouse — she details her love for rom-coms in her memoir, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?, and clearly understands the type of characters and the emotional beats that go along with it — but the general inconsistency and weak characters that plague The Mindy Project hinders these aspirations, causing the entire Danny/Mindy narrative to fall flat. It’s a shame, because their storyline is often the bright spot in a dull show, largely due to Chris Messina’s performance. As The Mindy Project enters its third season, tonight, it’s continuing to take small steps to better itself but still isn’t quite sure how to do that.

At the end of Season 2, The Mindy Project fully committed to the idea of Mindy and Danny, putting them together in a super-romantic episode that actually ended with them still together, instead of throwing some obstacle — or person — between them. On one hand, this is a step in the right direction if The Mindy Project wants to spend the season deeply exploring this relationship, how the rest of the office is going to react, and how Mindy behaves when she’s actually in a committed relationship with someone who a) likes her and b) is pretty much her equal.

On the other hand, the “will they/won’t they” trope was something that really worked for The Mindy Project, one that delighted Tumblr shippers who believe the chase is most of the fun. Putting them together runs the risk of dulling the narrative but also, more likely, it opens the door for Kaling and her writers to toss in endless cliché second-act romantic comedy storylines: the couple will find out disturbing secrets about one another, have some big argument about their future, maybe an ex-boyfriend will return (who am I kidding — of course an ex-boyfriend will return), they will be unable to deal with the office’s scrutiny surrounding their relationship, and so on. Aside from inconsistencies and Mindy Lahiri’s very confusing character, that’s The Mindy Project‘s biggest problem: The show has never found a TV trope it doesn’t love, even if that trope doesn’t work for the episode at hand. And there are countless tropes to throw in during this season.

That said, the Season 3 premiere, aptly titled “We’re a Couple Now, Haters,” isn’t terrible. It introduces us to Mindy and Danny: The Couple, with mixed results. As expected, they almost immediately run into trouble — he doesn’t dig her gossiping, oversharing ways, which results in her telling everyone in the office everything about their relationship; she is on a mission to figure out the origin of the pink thong she found in his dresser — but it’s not the relationship-threatening trouble that I expected from this show. It’s fairly low-key and has a nice enough resolution (again, so many kudos to Chris Messina for his performance; the last few minutes are going to be GIFed all over Tumblr tomorrow morning).

What’s more, The Mindy Project seems to be trying to make itself over into the ensemble comedy that it desperately needs to become. Mindy’s character is different from week to week (and we get some insight into Danny’s past that makes no sense given what we already know about him), so the show is often better and more balanced when the focus isn’t solely on her. Sure, Mindy’s colleagues still need some development — Peter switches from good friend to terrible person at the drop of a hat, Tamra falls into the “sassy sidekick” role more often than not, and I actually forgot that Jeremy was still on the show — but their interactions can be funny, and most of the actors bounce off each other very well.

“Were a Couple Now, Haters” isn’t the kick in the ass that The Mindy Project needs to enter the ranks of great television comedies, but it demonstrates that Kaling et al. are at least making the effort to right a few wrongs and produce a more stable program. If you’re a fan of The Mindy Project already, then you’ll have no problem with this episode (and likely no problem with the season as a whole, though it’s going to once again be obnoxiously bogged down by guest stars). If you’re on the fence — as I am, every single week — then this isn’t going to convince you to stick with it, but it won’t make you run in the opposite direction, either. Maybe The Mindy Project is just destined to remain an average sitcom for its entire run. There are worse things it could be.