I bet you didn’t watch The Mindy Project last night. Know how I know that? Because it has dismal ratings and it is perpetually predicted to be cancelled.
I would wag my finger at you and say “You should be ashamed!” but the truth is, I’m part of the problem. I dutifully followed Mindy Kaling from The Office to her new show last season, but I found it off-putting from the start. The title seemed to say it all: “We couldn’t land on a good name for the show, so instead of ‘The Untitled Mindy Kaling Project,’ we’ll just call it ‘The Mindy Project’ as a placeholder.” I found Mindy off-putting as she crashed her ex’s wedding, drove a bicycle into a pool, and spouted out more pop culture references than Abed Nadir. She was surrounded by equally polarizing characters: a male coworker with whom she has a fling, another male coworker who tells her she needs to drop fifteen pounds, an overly accented Jersey receptionist, a curiously placed best friend, and another mousy receptionist who, at the time, seemed to exist only to even out the numbers.
I didn’t stick with the show past the second episode, but I also didn’t swear it off. I figured if it made it to a full order, maybe I’d give it a chance then. Then one day in June, I was sick and flat on the floor, with a free trial for Hulu Plus and a brand-new flatscreen to watch it on, so I figured why not?
Turns out, the show did a lot of retooling in the first half of the season. In fact, the revolving cast of characters is almost a cornerstone of The Mindy Project at this point. The central cast remains the same: Dr. Mindy Lahiri (Mindy Kaling), Dr. Daniel Castellano (Chris Messina), Dr. Jeremy Reed (Ed Weeks), and head nurse Morgan Tookers (Ike Barinholtz). Everyone else has either left the show since the premiere or has joined it somewhere along the way. The best friend and the Jersey receptionist were jettisoned (Anna Camp will do just fine, and Amanda Setton has already landed a series regular role on The Crazy Ones) while other characters and recurring guest stars have filled the void.
Mindy herself has grown a great deal since that drunken bike ride into a pool. She still enjoys her flings, her colorful clothes, and her outspoken opinions on pop culture, but she’s also come into her own thanks to her great group of friends.
By far, the driving force behind the show’s moderate success is the relationship between Mindy and Danny, which starts out as antagonistic before it slowly blossoms into friendship. They’re not quite Sam and Diane, because who is? But they have amazing chemistry and Messina in particular is fantastic at building the slow burn. His expressions usually give away his true feelings for Mindy, and those along with his constant rants about the most ridiculous things (“Coffee should have two flavors: cream and sugar.”) make him an utter delight to watch.
While Danny’s been slowly coming to terms with his feelings, Mindy still appears oblivious, both to her own feelings and to Danny’s feelings for her. Instead, she’s forged this amazing friendship with him (and with the other characters on the show) just from sheer force of will.
Basically, I can admit when I’m wrong. I still don’t enjoy the early Mindy episodes, this show took a bit longer to find its groove than most do, but while other shows suffer from a sophomore slump, this show doesn’t seem to know the meaning of the term. All of the characters are finding their voices, and the writing has gotten pretty amazing. But allow me to back up a little, just to make sure you’re all caught up.
Last season, Mindy went to Haiti with her boyfriend, Casey (played by Anders Holm, of Workaholics fame) but returned at the beginning of this season thanks to a gallbladder infection. The Haiti trip was a huge step for Mindy, who did away with all of her material trappings in favor of doing charity work with her minister boyfriend. She excitedly accepted his marriage proposal in Haiti, and expected to marry him when he returned to the States again. But when Casey decided to quit being a minister to search for his true calling, Mindy had to make the painful decision to break up with him.
It was unexpectedly heartbreaking to watch. Mindy was always selfish and self-centered in her relationships and men often treated her badly. This time, Casey wasn’t doing anything wrong, he wanted her to go with him as he followed his dreams, but it wasn’t right for Mindy. She finally had a guy that was good for her, made her smile, and treated her right, but she was never going to be happy moving around all the time. Those are the toughest kinds of breakups.
In the next episode, in a haze of breakup-driven grief, Mindy encounters a lawyer named Cliff Gilbert, played by It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s Glenn Howerton. He’ll always be Dennis Reynolds to me, which means I’ll always be suspicious of him turning out to be a real a-hole by the time his arc on this show is over.
In the meantime, Howerton has great chemistry with Kaling, even surprising me, a longtime Sunny fan, with his ability to be sweet and a little vulnerable. Bravo, Dennis Reynolds! Who knew you had it in you?
Since their first encounter, Mindy’s been distracted with her breakup and trying to put her life back together, which has given Cliff a chance to get to know her from a distance. He even got to talk to her outside of work, when Danny hired Cliff to sue his ex-wife for putting on an art exhibit with his nude pictures. Cliff was impressed with Mindy’s outfit (“Usually you look like a pinata.” “Okay, I like to wear colors. And yes, I’m usually full of candy.”) and seemed to really enjoy her company, despite the fact that she was there with her boyfriend. Cliff hasn’t reappeared since then, which brings us to last night’s episode.
After encountering Cliff (and his hot runner-up Miss Universe girlfriend) in the elevator on a Friday night, Mindy finally sort of admits to Morgan that she has feelings for Cliff.
“Even if I liked him, it doesn’t matter. He’s with the second-hottest woman in the universe. I’m not even the second-hottest woman on this floor.”
As if her night isn’t bad enough, Mindy lost her purse, which had her phone, keys, money… you’d think she’d be more frazzled and concerned, considering the rampant identity theft these days, but true to Mindy form, she’s largely unconcerned with her belongings and just wants a place to stay for tonight. She seems confident that her purse will turn up in the lost and found, which is a special Mindy Lahiri brand of confidence.
As far as the Playing House trope goes, this is one of the best executions I’ve seen on TV. It’s actually fitting that Mindy would 1) lose her purse, 2) not have a spare set of keys to get back into her own apartment, and 3) be persuasive enough to convince Danny, who lives nearby, to let her stay at his apartment for the night. Danny’s never been particularly good at saying no to Mindy anyway.
“… You can’t get on my computer, because last time, you changed my Wifi network name to ‘Leave Miley Alone’ and I don’t know how to change it back! Rule number two: coasters, coasters, coasters!”
Mindy’s doldrums persist as she and Danny walk home, and she finally admits to him that she likes someone, but she adds that it can’t work out because he’s out of her league, and besides, “whenever we see each other, we fight.” In a classic sitcom misunderstanding, Danny thinks Mindy’s talking about him. He looks scared, but not horrified.
Then they encounter his “crazy neighbor” Amy in the lobby of his building, and Danny hurriedly asks Mindy to pretend to be his girlfriend. Mindy excitedly elevates the situation: “He found true love… with his fiancee, which is me.” She comes up with an amazing love story for them, some of which is actually true to life: they couldn’t stand each other at first, but eventually they grew to love each other. Other aspects are complete fiction, like the fact that they met in St. Barts, or that Mindy is pregnant with Danny’s son. Danny grimaces his way through the exchange, but again, he doesn’t look like he wants to vomit (which, sorry, he always looked like he wanted to weep and die in his scenes with his ex-wife, Christina, played by Chloe Sevigny) so that was a promising development.
Meanwhile, Morgan and Dr. Peter Prentice (Adam Pally, of Happy Endings fame) discover Mindy’s purse thanks to her phone, which is buzzing with texts from Cliff. Just when you think you can’t take any more, Morgan and Peter decide to text Cliff back as Mindy. (Morgan is a Cliff/Mindy shipper through and through, which is adorable.) Cliff reveals that his date didn’t go well, and his texting Mindy after a failed date means he’s totally into her. Morgan and Peter keep up the texting until Peter forces Morgan to send a winky face. Morgan: “Are you kidding me? A winky face is like Emoji porn!” When Cliff sends a winky face back, the game is on.
Mindy is wearing Danny’s clothes, eating his only snacks (sugar cubes, which I’m assuming he keeps on hand for his Old Fashioneds, in which case, shouldn’t he also have maraschino cherries?), and lounging on his couch. She nudges him with her feet, which is probably gross to a good portion of the human race, but it’s adorable even if it agitates a hypervigilant Danny. He still thinks Mindy is crushing on him, and he’s not even annoyed by her–he just wants his space so he can figure out his feelings. The funny part is, Mindy’s just being overbearing because that’s who she is, and she takes Danny’s awkwardness as him just being grumpy about having another person in his space. The dual misunderstandings work out really well in this case, which is why this episode is so delightful and impressive.
Danny escapes to his bedroom to watch the nature channel, but Mindy can’t sleep and comes to join him, hopping onto the bed and giggling at the mating frogs on TV. Danny can’t take it anymore and tells Mindy that they need to talk, but they’re interrupted by his crazy neighbor, who is sitting on the couch in the living room.
When Morgan and Peter escalate the texting to “What are you wearing?” Cliff is intrigued… and decides to head over to Mindy’s house. Booty call: engaged. The sad part of this story is that this is an actual conversation Mindy would’ve had with Cliff, had she not lost her phone that night. So while we’re treated to scenes of her and Danny being adorable together, we’re also agonizing over the fact that she’s missing out on a sure thing with Cliff, who still seems like a nice dude even if he does turn out to be more like Dennis Reynolds than anyone would want.
Horrified, Peter and Morgan decide to throw together an amazing last-minute Veterans Day party at Mindy’s apartment to cover for her absence (they say she’s on a salsa run) which effectively takes the wind out of Cliff’s sails. By the way, I think the Ike Barinholtz-Adam Pally combination is a winner. They continue to text (at some point it crosses into sext territory, I think, it’s not clear when it’s on a primetime sitcom) during the party, while Cliff plays a wicked game of Scrabble against Peter.
Mindy gets to slap Danny in mock-rage for cheating on her with his neighbor, then asks for every excruciating detail of Danny’s sex life. Mindy discovers that Amy got into the apartment with her key, which Danny had given her, because they’d been spending most nights together. Mindy hauls Danny into the bathroom and demands that he admit he’s not a carefree player who just hooks up with women with no feelings. He cops to it rather quickly, probably because all of his defenses are lowering thanks to Mindy’s constant, but unsuspecting, assault. She forces him to admit that he doesn’t want a relationship to his neighbor, but thanks to a slip-up, Amy becomes suspicious that Danny and Mindy aren’t really dating. In an effort to keep up the ruse, they embrace and insist that they’re very much in love.
You can see the exact moment that Danny finally realizes his true feelings for Mindy. But this scene is actually a one-two punch of emotions for Danny; the first part is realization, the second part is actually knowing what the feelings are. “This is real,” Amy says confidently. “Danny never looked at me like that.”
The episode itself is also a one-two punch of emotion, which is why it’s so great, from start to finish. In the very next scene, Cliff is trying to get to Mindy, who he thinks is in the bathroom, so he can apologize. “I apologize if our texting thing got a little intense, and you got scared off. but now that I’m here, I just want to get to know you better. I think you’re really cool, and the most exciting text I got from you all night was… the first one.”
Of course, as he’s confessing his feelings to an empty room, we see a shot of Danny letting Mindy sleep in his bed, while he grabs a pillow to go sleep on the couch. But then Cliff opens the door and realizes the entire text conversation was a ruse. After a hilarious confrontation scene with Peter and Morgan, where he demands they delete the texts from Mindy’s phone, Cliff runs into Mindy’s neighbor, Heather (Ellie Kemper, from The Office), and goes home with her. Morgan decides not to delete the text conversation.
The next morning, Danny cooks Mindy French toast for breakfast while she reads the newspaper. “You know that guy you work with? I think you should know, you’re not out of his league. You’re great.”
That’s when Mindy drops the bomb: “When I get home, I’m gonna call Cliff and ask him out.” Poor Danny. He should be relieved, and maybe he is a little bit, but he mostly looked dejected.
Mindy arrives at work to find her purse on her desk, with a note from Morgan. She gets a voicemail from Heather, thanking her for the fun party and telling her about the great guy she hooked up with last night. Mindy looks confused for a minute… and then she discovers the texts.
This sets up a fun arc for the rest of the calendar year, because now we essentially have two triangles to deal with. Triangles usually aren’t my thing, but the Danny-Mindy-Cliff one shouldn’t be too bad since Danny will likely keep his feelings to himself for the time being. The fun is in the Mindy-Cliff-Heather triangle… because I didn’t mention this before, but Mindy and Heather only know each other because they were both dating a lawyer who was cheating on both of them. Heather trashed Mindy’s apartment and ruined her Christmas party last year, and that was over a misunderstanding. If Mindy dates Cliff now, it’ll really hit the fan.
So the question remains: Why aren’t you watching The Mindy Project?