In the season four midseason finale, “Will They or Won’t They?”, The Mindy Project did something unique for a sitcom. When it became clear that Mindy (Mindy Kaling) and Danny (Chris Messina) were just not compatible romantic partners, they made the decision to separate and parent their son, Leo, apart. While Messina didn’t leave the show, he’s been scarce in the back half of season four, seemingly to work on other projects. Without Danny in the picture, constantly pining for Mindy or as an ever present roadblock to her new romantic endeavors (although he does make a hypocritically impassioned plea to a potential paramour following a particularly moving love letter), Mindy was free to explore some new territory. Except this territory began to look increasingly familiar.
For the back half of season four, the show has constantly flirted with the idea of Mindy coupling up with her coworker, Jody (Garrett Dillahunt). However, this potential pairing made it look like Mindy was just falling into old patterns, falling for another conservative, hyper-masculine co-worker that constantly belittles her abilities. Instead of short and Italian, she went tall and Southern, but the core dynamic remains the same. While Jody at least respects her enough to go into business with her (which Danny was vehemently against), it still feels like more of the same. Danny used to think she was a good doctor, too, but the days of red reading glasses and Diamond Dan are long over. Until they’re not.
In the season four finale, “Homewrecker,” the fallout from a Mindy/Jody kiss comes to a head. After being swept away with the romance of Jody caring about her kid (an admittedly kind gesture), Mindy impulsively jumps head first into a potential relationship. However, after becoming aware of complications with his girlfriend and the fact that he lied about an STD, Mindy put on the brakes. All new romantic entanglements are put on hold, though, when she reunites with Danny to attend a meeting at Leo’s pre-preschool to deal with a recent penchant for biting the other children.
Danny blames Mindy’s work habits as the cause of Leo’s bad behavior, showing that the more things change, the more they stay the same. However, the two are thrown into a classic sitcom trope when the elevator breaks down and they are left to deal with their issues in a closed space. Though familiar, it’s one of the series’ most enjoyable scenes in a long while. Kaling and Messina bring out the best in each other as performers, and even though the characters may not be compatible, their chemistry remains palpable. As they swap war stories about being back in the dating scene, they’re overcome and have sex in the elevator (as good parents would when visiting their child’s school). The rub, though, is that Danny has yet to reveal that he is engaged to Greta Gerwig’s affable and neurotic nurse, Sarah.
If Mindy is repeating the patterns of her past, Danny is repeating the patterns of his father (Dan Hedaya). Danny has a massive chip on his shoulder for a number of reasons, but his fraught relationship with the father who abandoned him and his brother at a young age is easily the biggest. While Danny certainly hasn’t abandoned his son, part of what drove him and Mindy apart was his hesitance to get married again. For him to be making that leap in so short of a time with a different, easier woman is telling. Instead of doing the relationship work, Danny fled, just like his father, and instead of doing the honorable thing and informing Mindy of his recent relationship status change, he leaves her in the dark, tells her he still loves her, and royally screws with her head. Whether he can admit it to himself or not, Danny is choosing the most craven option available to him.
After a full season on Hulu after being dumped unceremoniously by Fox, viewers might be left wondering if The Mindy Project has anything new to say. Anyone who’s watched The Office or read either of Kaling’s books knows that she is a comedic force of nature, and many hoped that the less restrictive Hulu format would foster an edgier, sharper show. While the perfectly deployed pop culture references, smart commentary on women’s health, and so-true-it-hurts looks at being single are still there, the comedy has felt increasingly unfocused. For a show with so much potential for impact (a woman of color writing, producing, and starring in her own show is a huge deal), many of the characters seem like overly familiar comedic types. While that may have been a bid for broader appeal on Fox, it feels out of place when compared to other critically acclaimed comedies like Brooklyn Nine-Nine and You’re the Worst.
As the episode comes to a close, Mindy is left to choose between Danny, the father of her child, and Jody, who bought her an adjacent apartment (maybe go on a first date first?) for her to turn into a room for Leo as a way to show his love. After previously subverting rom-com cliches, The Mindy Project really leans hard on them in this finale. What fans are left with is a show that constantly walks the line between subverting tropes and getting bogged down in them. While it could be exploring the patterns that people fall into when they’re unwilling to change, it almost feels like the show has started recycling material. Kaling has such a sharp comedic voice, but this season has felt a bit aimless. I keep coming back to this show and forgiving its faults in the name of growing pains, but four seasons in, it’s not unreasonable to expect a more confident show, especially with an already-ordered fifth season in the works.