When “The Mindy Project” took a knee for its winter hiatus, Mindy (Mindy Kaling) and Danny (Chris Messina) were in a bad place. As Mindy’s career aspirations collided with Danny’s immediate desire to breed, their knotty dynamic finally curdled when Mindy slipped out of her and Danny’s bed, back to her old apartment. While Mindy and Danny were on the verge of maybe splitting up, viewers were – perversely – on the verge of relief.
With “The Mindy Project” about to return for the back half of its fourth season, it’s worth asking how one of TV’s most shippable couples got here, begging for a breakup. Because while the series wants to honestly confront the challenges of long-term coupledom, something more disturbing is making its way onscreen.
Mindy Kaling herself locates Mindy and Danny’s problems in the inherent dynamic of two dissimilar, strong-willed people. Their very appeal is that they shouldn’t work well together, so we don’t get to be surprised that they don’t. Speaking to Glamour, Kaling explained what they’re going through by saying, “When you’re on episode 67, 70, 75, what is the strife between two people who in many, many ways, do not belong together?”
“So what happens when a couple isn’t suited for each other? A lot of people who watch the show for wish-fulfillment reasons were not happy with the way that Danny behaved, but that is how that guy would behave.”
It’s logic that Kaling feeds to Danny in “The Parent Trap,” the episode preceding the series’ midseason finale. Mulling his disapproval of Mindy’s work ventures, Danny sighs, “I just don’t know when the things we wanted became so different.”
In truth, “The Mindy Project’s” Mindy and Danny’s problems are a lot older than little Leo Castellano, emerging in step with their coupling in the show’s season two finale. From the precipice of Mindy and Danny’s relationship,”The Mindy Project” has valued Danny as a romantic catch, voicing Mindy’s sense of gratitude to be with him. But from just as early on, an inability to separate the show’s voice from Mindy’s gave leeway to episode after episode of Danny tricking or criticizing a cowed Mindy in stories played purely for hijinx or laughs.
Since Mindy and Danny’s first kiss way back in “The Desert,” Danny has, in no specific order of egregiousness, pressured Mindy into dumping her boyfriend only to shortly thereafter dump Mindy, catfished Mindy to control her dating prospects, assumed Mindy would be onboard with anal sex, attempted to torpedo her chances at a medical fellowship in San Francisco, purchased a brownstone for them to live in without consulting her and then used this gesture as emotional blackmail, lectured her on her eating habits, guilted her for not wanting to give birth naturally, and repeatedly pressured her into giving up her career. All of this culminated with Danny tracking Mindy’s ovulation, trying to get her pregnant in spite of her professed ambivalence.
Individually, a number of these incidents, like the catfishing or the brownstone, might be framed in the rom-com trope of the grand gesture, a defense Danny himself employs. But when it is presented as a pattern, the grand gesture stops being a gift. When it’s employed as Danny does – catfishing Mindy to derail her personal life or buying the brownstone to manipulate her back to New York – the grand gesture becomes a tactic of imposing silence and tacit acquiescence. For Danny, it’s how he denies Mindy say in decisions where the battleground is too frequently her body.
As for Mindy, well, where is Mindy? Mindy is ostensibly inseparable from her brashness, and yet the Mindy of Mindy and Danny has been more quiet than comic. Throughout this season especially, Danny doesn’t ask Mindy what she wants, and Mindy doesn’t say. None of which is to blame Mindy for Danny’s underhandedness, but while viewers clearly understand Mindy as the wronged party, so much of her initial alignment with Danny’s desires – trying her hand at stay-at-home motherhood, not admitting her disinterest in a second child – scream Mindy’s insecurity at the backwards possibility of Danny leaving her.
It’s here, in a power imbalance ever emboldened by Danny’s proclivity for the grand gesture (this is the logic that allows Danny to deny Mindy’s career as an act of generosity), that “The Mindy Project” appears troublingly divorced from its ambition. Because, as Kaling herself described, Danny’s dickish behavior is no accident. “The Mindy Project” told the story of a woman who heedlessly enacted her own romantic comedy. It is now following that premise through to a realistically fractured end. In that sense, Mindy’s desperation to hold onto Danny is, creatively, a brutal success. But “The Mindy Project” is forgetting its context. It’s forgetting that “The Mindy Project” isn’t just Mindy and Danny and a fair fight between them. In what is perhaps “The Mindy Project”‘s most insidious, if accidental, truth, while Danny has options, Mindy has no one else in her life.
It’s hard to remember now, but “The Mindy Project” was once the kind of show that had Mindy proclaim, “A best friend is not a person, it’s a tier.” Before the show pushed its cast through a revolving door, Mindy had three female best friends – Gwen, Alex, and Maggie – and at least two female coworkers who did not treat her with discernible contempt – Betsy and Shauna. The argument that these since-cut characters (especially Mindy’s friends) did not naturally mesh with a workplace sitcom is reasonable, but when Mindy is stripped of fellowship as that space gets filled by a line of indistinguishable white men who criticize Mindy much as Danny does, that argument stops being good enough.
Indeed, while there’s been much due criticism about Mindy’s extraordinarily white dating history, “The Mindy Project” has done no better with Mindy’s work family, replacing one white male doctor at the practice with another, while the show’s only female and POC regulars besides Kaling have been support staff. (That this happens despite the female dominance of the obstetrics field is all the more exhausting.) When guest stars cycle through the show, it is rarely in the space of real friendship. Instead we get Maya Kazan’s savior turned crazy nanny or Niecy Nash as a competent superior and potential friend who inevitably makes a move on Mindy. Adam Pally’s Peter did slowly become a true friend to Mindy… Just in time for Pally to leave the show.
All of which is to say that Mindy has no friends, no kinship. When Danny tries to make Mindy feel awful for prioritizing her career, who has the show given her to assure Mindy that he’s wrong?
Meanwhile, not only does Danny get the natural camaraderie of guys at the office who agree about Mindy’s supposed frivolity, but the show has put enormous effort into Danny’s backstory. His Ma (Rhea Perlman) appears on the show with near-regular frequency, while his brother (Max Minghella) recurs more than Mindy’s own (Utkarsh Ambudkar). Danny is richly detailed, his conflicts with his absentee father (Dan Hedaya) and ex-wife (Chloe Sevigny) both garnering arcs of attention. In contrast, Mindy is curiously ahistorical. Her parents have appeared in only two episodes, both this season, and allusion to her personal history is scarce. We know almost nothing of Mindy beyond what we explicitly see.
And so, whereas Danny’s backstory is tied to the grump we meet, Mindy drops into the show spontaneously generated. It’s a division of plot space that is crucial to how “The Mindy Project” divvies up sympathy, particularly as the series presents itself in the superficial affect of a cartoon. When Mindy is selfish or superficial, it comes as an arbitrary whim; when Danny acts as an inconsiderate partner, the show cues us to see his actions in light of his difficult childhood and divorce.
Mindy and Danny’s story is the classic will-they-won’t-they trajectory of unlikely, gradual closeness. But in line with their growing intimacy, Danny’s world blossomed while Mindy’s has emptied out. And so it’s sadly unsurprising that it takes Mindy so long to confront Danny’s controlling and deceptive behavior. While “The Mindy Project” tries to present Mindy and Danny’s problems as the battle of two evenly matched hotheads, when Mindy makes the first step to leave, she doesn’t have a friend or family’s couch to crash on for the night. The midseason finale ends with Mindy in tears on the floor of her old apartment – alone.
In “The Parent Trap,” Mindy and Danny are attending a screening of “When Harry Met Sally” when they get into a blowout fight. As Mindy and Danny crack openly in front of one of the primary inspirations for “Danny and Mindy,” the wish fulfillment episode of their reconciliation, the show admits that this is not the romantic comedy you were promised. Yet what the series can’t seem to see is that far from twisting a stale genre, “The Mindy Project” abandoned the rom-com, reducing Mindy from a vital protagonist to a figure alienated by her own show. Halfway through season four, “The Mindy Project” is not the romantic comedy you were promised. It is not a romantic comedy at all.
Still in its first season on Hulu and newly free of the more restrictive morality of network TV, “The Mindy Project” is admittedly in an awkward phase. And so there’s no reason to presume that the show can’t, with time, recalibrate to a riskier model. In that same interview with Glamour, Kaling equates Danny to “Sex and the City”‘s Mr. Big. It’s a savvy comparison; perhaps no series has deployed rom-com aesthetics for wrinklier ends than the HBO comedy. But Kaling also says of “SATC,” “the show is about Mr. Big and Carrie. It’s also about a woman figuring out what she wants in her 30s.”
If Kaling really wants to course-correct “The Mindy Project,” she’s going to have to reverse those priorities. Danny may be the most important man in Mindy’s life, but Mindy’s wants cannot be an “also.” For the show to succeed, “The Mindy Project” needs to start taking its title literally, making a project that’s actually about Mindy.
“The Mindy Project” Season 4 returns April 12, 2016 on Hulu.