Review: ‘The Mindy Project’ makes trouble for Mindy & Danny in 1st Hulu season

Hulu released the mid-season finale of “The Mindy Project” yesterday, and I have thoughts on that episode and season 4 to date coming up just as soon as I sign up for this great new dating website called Ashley Madison…

Once upon a time, “The Mindy Project” was going to be called “It's Messy.” While that title lacked either part of Mindy Kaling's name in it, and would have invited some easy jokes if critics hadn't liked it, it would have captured not only the messiness of Mindy Lahiri's life, but the intrinsic messiness of the show itself. The series has tried lots of different things in terms of characters and tone, and though the cast more or less settled down midway through the FOX run, there are still pieces that feel mismatched, and characters like Jeremy who have stuck around even though nobody seems to know what to do with him anymore(*).

(*) In hindsight, Jason Mann might have done the show a favor this season by casting Ed Weeks in “The Leisure Class,” which meant less time had to be devoted to coming up with Jeremy subplots.

“When Mindy Met Danny,” while primarily meant to show how far the leads have come since they first met – while having Mindy mock the idea of backstory with her dismissal of “Wicked” – also functioned as a reminder of how much the show around them was transformed. Stephen Tobolowsky got to return as Dr. Shulman, Jeremy (who was originally meant to be one third of a love triangle with Mindy and Danny) was hitting on Mindy, and Morgan was nowhere to be found.

For that matter, the use of M.I.A.'s “Bad Girls” as she delivered the baby in last week's episode was also a callback to the pilot (the show's used it a few times now), and this whole fight between Mindy and Danny was a reminder that, when the series started, they weren't adorably mismatched like a Sam and Diane or a Maddie and David, but genuinely nasty to each other. In the romantic comedies that both Mindys love so much (one of them referenced in the finale's title), opposites attract all the time, and differences are overcome by the end of the third act. But as an ongoing romantic comedy series – in the same way that “The Walking Dead” has to push past the endings of traditional zombie movies – it has to acknowledge that things aren't always that easy over the long haul. Mindy and Danny may have softened to one another, but he's still an 80-year-old man in a younger man's body, she's still capable of being an enormous flake when the story requires it (more on that in a minute), and his behavior this season has been so rough that it would have rang false if it didn't create some kind of schism between the two of them. Kaling's primarily a comic writer and actress, but she's been really good whenever the show has required her to play a more serious note, and she was excellent here.

That said, the show's approach 90 percent of the time is to do anything for a laugh, even if it means ignoring consistency of character and tone and story in order to accomplish that. Funny forgives a lot, and this show has such good writers that it can largely get away with this – see also how it manages to make episodes built around the hackiest of hacky sitcom plots, like Mindy's preschool application panic, work just because the jokes were so strong – but it makes for a more awkward pivot into dramatic territory than when, say, “Parks and Rec” used to do it. Kaling did come up on “The Office,” which was wildly inconsistent in its take on Michael, and would sell him out for a good joke whenever necessary, but which was able in time to use him for dramatic and/or romantic moments, too. So I can see why she thinks the two aspects aren't mutually exclusive, even if it leads to a lot of whiplash in a season, or sometimes even within an episode.

In the show's early days, I kept waiting for it to settle on a consistent tone, character set, etc. After a while, I made peace with the show's  consistent inconsistency, and can simply enjoy all the pieces that work, even if they don't always seem to fit with one another.

Some other thoughts:

* When I spoke with Kaling before the season, she noted that she didn't want to push the show's adult content much beyond what FOX was letting her get away with, but the language was blunter at times, and the sexual references more explicit, like Mindy last week telling Danny, “You could, like, go down on me.” For the most part, though, this was the show they were making the first three seasons. The shift to three-act structure (discussed in that interview) was nice, but on the whole the show felt less changed than, say, the “Community” Yahoo season. They even avoided using the full intro sequence in many weeks because those episodes were running longer, and the creative team didn't want the overall viewing experience to feel too flabby.

* I know Garret Dillahunt has other jobs, but I'd be perfectly happy to see him stick around here permanently. As mentioned above, “Jody Kimball-Kinney Is My Husband” was arguably the show's funniest episode of the season, and because he and Mindy are only co-workers, the show can more easily mine laughs from his reactionary attitudes than it can from Danny's. With both Weeks and Chris Messina missing from parts of the season, Dillahunt more than helped carry the office scenes.

* I also like that Peter gets to come back every now and then, even though Adam Pally's not a regular. The show gave a large swath of its former characters the Chuck Cunningham treatment – even Anna Camp's Gwen, who was supposed to be Mindy's best friend, and almost certainly would be in her life now that Mindy's had a kid, even if they'd drifted apart for a while due to different life situations – and it feels natural that some of them would continue to occasionally cross paths with Mindy.

* Because his name stayed on the practice, Shulman wasn't quite Chuck Cunningham'ed, but Tobolowsky got written off the show very abruptly in season 1, which might make it surprising that he would agree to come back. But in his great (if increasingly infrequent) podcast The Tobolowsky Files, the man is very blunt about the realities of the entertainment industry, and a job's a job. 

What did everybody else think? How have you felt about the season so far? Are you intrigued or annoyed by the Mindy/Danny strife?