Since its 2012 debut on Fox, The Mindy Project has gotten better by doing the things that usually make sitcoms worse: It’s drifted away from the strong, clear premise that defined its early episodes, that a single woman finding that reality doesn’t match up with expectations created by a lifetime spent watching romantic comedies. Instead of drawing out the sexual tension between OB-GYN Mindy Lahiri (star and creator Mindy Kaling) and fellow doctor Danny Castellano (Chris Messina), it pushed them into a loving, if fractious, steady relationship in its second season. Introduced towards the end of the show’s third season, Mindy’s pregnancy—typically a desperate measure of an aging show trying to pump some life into a tired premise—played as both a surprising and natural development. For its latest trick, The Mindy Project will try to defy the natural sitcom order again by finding a second life after cancellation.
Dropped by Fox at the end of last year, it was picked up by Hulu seemingly minutes later and given a 26-episode order, much to the relief of the show’s loyal, if not-large-enough-for-Fox viewership. Its fourth season premiere debuts today and is on the site now. There’s a pattern here: Community squeezed out another season by going to Yahoo. Intended for NBC, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (with whom The Mindy Project is currently embroiled in a “gift war”) instead ended up on Netflix. As much by accident as design, streaming services now seem to be where shows too quirky for the networks go to live.
If anything, it’s a better fit for The Mindy Project. The show found plenty of ways to push the boundaries while still on network TV, having spent much of its final season on Fox apparently trying to see what it could get away with. (To date, it’s the only network show I’ve seen to build an entire episode around a thwarted attempt at anal sex, unless there’s a very special Family Ties I missed.) It’s less the opportunity to try edgier material that suggests The Mindy Project will do well away from the network confines than the chance to play things a little looser than before. At this year’s TCA conference, producer Ike Barinholtz (who co-stars as Morgan, one of the nurses in Mindy’s practice) suggested the changes would have less to do with bringing in more explicit content than giving the ensemble more room to breathe.
That’s not much in evidence in “While I Was Sleeping,” the season four premiere, which sidelines much of the supporting cast to pick up where the third season cliffhanger left off—with Danny traveling to India to reveal himself as the father of Mindy’s unborn child to her parents. Here, he takes his time even after meeting Mindy’s previously unseen dad (Ajay Mehta) and mom (Sakina Jaffrey), both veteran character actors and both looking like fine additions to the ensemble. Best known for her work on House of Cards, Jaffrey in particular has several scene-stealing moments related to her mostly imagined career, as her husband puts it without any irony, as “the premier undiscovered Bollywood character actress in the greater Boston area.”
Separated from Danny, Mindy spends much of her episode in an It’s a Wonderful Life-inspired dream in which she and Danny never got together. The good news: She’s married to a rich and handsome reality show producer (played with a smile and a spit-curl by Joseph Gordon-Levitt). The bad news: Well, the specifics take a while to reveal themselves, but the aching sense that there’s something missing presents itself right away.
It’s a choice that might feel gimmicky if done wrong, but, in a neat twist, the dream sequence—which includes a funny cameo best left unspoiled—ends up feeling as consequential as what Danny’s up to in the real world. Part of what’s made The Mindy Project so compelling over the past few seasons—beyond its gift for throwaway gags like an offhand reference to a line of “slutty girdles for the sexually active obese”—is the way it’s slowly developed into the story of two people gradually recognizing how much they need each other—in spite of all evidence suggesting otherwise. Danny’s stodgy and cynical. Mindy’s frivolous and guileless. But the arc of their relationship has been one of two people making each other better by balancing each other out. Everything about “While I Was Sleeping” suggests this will be the case in the Hulu era, just as it was on Fox. And if networks don’t have room for this type of show, that’s just one more reason to explore the alternatives.