In a recent article about the rise of the “millennial sitcom,” Vulture writer Jenny Jaffe describes a new brand of TV comedy characterized by tropes like “the cell-phone emergency” and “the wander-the-city walk-and-talk.” These series are often described as “genre-defying” twists on the romantic comedy. They have lo-fi indie visuals, light nudity, and offbeat pacing; they look like something your boyfriend wouldn’t be embarrassed to admit to watching.
In other words, those comedies have a more gender-neutral (read: masculine) aesthetic, doing away with the supersaturated colors, frilly costumes, and choppy editing of more conventional rom-coms from ten or 20 years ago — the very same qualities that The Mindy Project has openly aped from the get-go.
It’s true that The Mindy Project feels a lot more like a traditional rom-com sitcom (romitcom? ritcom?) than You’re the Worst, Master of None, Girls, Man Seeking Woman, and, most recently, Love — which is just to say it looks a lot girlier. But beneath its candy-colored surface, The Mindy Project is doing something far edgier than TV’s trendy new rom-coms. The show returns for the second half of its fourth season (formerly on Fox, now on Hulu) on April 12, which gives you plenty of time to catch up with the latest twist in the long-game romance plot between Mindy (Mindy Kaling) and Danny (Chris Messina).
The Mindy Project premiered right around the time critics were declaring the big-screen romantic comedy dead and gone, and from the start the show was an unambiguous homage to/ critique of the genre. Early episodes would set up typical rom-com conceits, only to knock them down (a New York City carriage ride ends when the horse dies). Mindy, a chipper, ambitious OB/GYN commuting from her fantastically decorated New York City apartment to her fantastically decorated New York City office, found an early foe and love interest in co-worker Danny Castellano. In one of my favorite episodes of the series, from Season 1, Mindy challenges Danny to take her on as his own gynecological patient, just to prove that his feelings for her are more than platonic.
By the second season, the two had hooked up; by the third, Mindy was pregnant. The two characters seemed to complement each other perfectly: Mindy was the bubblier of the two, with a wardrobe full of Day-Glo-bold outfits and the kind of hectic dating life that only a sitcom doctor could maintain. Danny was the Felix to Mindy’s Oscar, an uptight grouch with a strict moral code. Of course, he was also super-hot (like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Greg, he’s hot “if you like angry”), in the eyes of Mindy, and that affection passed on to the show’s viewers: for a while, Mindy and Danny were a beacon of hope in a TV landscape sorely lacking shippable couples.
Fox canceled The Mindy Project after its third season, which ended with Danny traveling to India to ask Mindy’s parents for permission to marry their daughter. Thank God Hulu stepped in and gave the show a fourth season, because that would have been a very different — and far worse — ending for the series than the one it appears to be inching towards.
During Mindy’s pregnancy, Danny began to change — or, more likely, he began to show who he really is. In Season 4, he left a very pregnant Mindy in New York to visit his sick father in California, and delayed his return week after week. Then, after she gave birth to a son, he dropped a bomb on Mindy: he insisted that she stay home with baby Leo rather than return to work. Mindy pushed back, but Danny just pushed harder. Before, he was ambivalent about committing to Mindy (he proposed only after she got pregnant); now, he wanted more babies, fast. He even went so far as to secretly track her menstrual cycle so they could have sex when she was most fertile.
In its mid-season finale in December, The Mindy Project left us with the revelation that the relationship Mindy thought she always wanted may actually not be very good for her. Suddenly, Danny didn’t seem like the solution to her problems; he was the problem. The episode ended on a cliffhanger: Will Mindy leave Danny?
So many comedies, on TV and film, position love as something that its characters badly need, whether they know it or not, or at least something that they need to do better. (Which, sure — love is very nice! We’d all like some!) The Mindy Project initially appeared to be heading in the same direction: Mindy already had the perfect job and apartment; her “project” was presumably to find the perfect mate. But as soon as the show started to veer from this path, I could feel its engines revving up, that low rumble of a series taking a risk.
Mindy and Danny’s relationship isn’t any stuffier or less real than the relationships on You’re the Worst or Love. If anything, The Mindy Project is more grounded than the supposedly more “authentic” love stories depicted on those shows. Turns out Mindy’s project isn’t finding the perfect guy; it’s finding a guy who will fit into the life she’s built for herself, instead of saving her from it.