Mindy Kaling arrives at the 88th Academy Awards on Sunday, Feb. 28, 2016, at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood. Jay L. Clendenin via Tribune News Service

‘The Mindy Project’ defies rom-com clichés

Going into the midseason premiere of season four of “The Mindy Project” (2012-present), Mindy and Danny’s relationship was in limbo. And in the premiere, titled “Will They or Won’t They?,” it became clear that, at least for now, they won’t. For a show written by and about a person obsessed with romantic comedies at face value, this development came as a shock. For viewers obsessed with rom-coms, it’s a hard pill to swallow. But it might be the smartest and truest thing the show has done in a while.

Mindy (Mindy Kaling) and Danny (Chris Messina) are the epitome of “opposites attract.” She’s the bubbly, brash lover of all things pop culture, and he’s the gruff, traditionally Catholic divorcé from Staten Island. They had very little in common besides working in the same OB-GYN practice. But their sexual chemistry was always off the charts, and what started as a love-hate relationship turned into an engagement and a newborn baby named Leo (for both DiCaprio and da Vinci). Things started to spiral out of control when Danny tried to push Mindy into leaving the practice, and her new fertility clinic, to become a stay-at-home mom and to have another baby. There is nothing wrong with being a stay-at-home mom, but it was clear that this wasn’t what Mindy wanted for herself. Even when she voiced this to Danny, he could not come around to seeing the value in Mindy’s following her career dreams, and that being an awesome working mom was the right choice for her.

Rom-coms train us to think that if two people are soulmates, then love despite any challenges, love will conquer all. In actual true love, a partner brings out the best in the other and respects their dreams and goals. While Mindy has consistently brought out a more playful, happier side in Danny, he has tried to mold her into something she doesn’t want to and shouldn’t be. Instead of Danny making some grand romantic gesture and Mindy falling back into his arms despite his treatment of her, the show allowed Mindy to make the mature decision and break free from what was ultimately holding her back.

That doesn’t mean this has been a joy to watch. The season has been dark, and it’s never fun to see a character you used to love, like Danny become swallowed by his flaws. When you step back from your deep, unhealthy, emotional connection to this fictional pairing, you realize that this unraveling is true to his character. Although this episode started with a montage showing Danny and Mindy breaking up, and ended with Mindy telling Danny she needs to stop seeing him altogether, it had a feeling of optimism. The Mindy we knew and loved got a little lost in the first half of this season, but this episode indicated that brighter times seem to be around the corner for her.

Mindy always said the one thing she was good at was her job, and it looks like this half of the season will see her further developing her fertility clinic and her “Later, Baby” program, which helps young women freeze their eggs. One of the best parts of “The Mindy Project” was watching Mindy try to navigate the dating world, and now the show can return to that, with the added layer of Mindy being a single mom.

Even though this episode served to mostly close the door of Mindy and Danny’s relationship and open up the door for the success of “Later, Baby,” “Will They or Won’t They?” still had its funny moments. Kaling wrote this episode, which meant that there was bound to be a plethora of funny and/or potentially offensive one-liners. From Tamra (Xosha Roquemore) saying to Mindy, “A month ago, I liked a picture of Dr. C on Instagram, and you poisoned my plant,” to Danny showing his out-of-touch ways, texting Mindy, “I made eggplant parm. That’s why I used the eggplant emojo,” there were plenty of laughs between the tears.

Although Danny and Mindy have been center stage for a while, the supporting cast has been doing well with the time it’s gotten. Consistently zany ex-con Morgan (Ike Barinholtz) rescued Seth Meyers’ dog, Frisbee, and got to be interviewed on Meyers’ show, where Morgan wore his trademark vest, of course. His entrance onto the stage was possibly the funniest 10 seconds of the episode. Newcomers Garret Dillahunt and Fortune Feimster also joined this season as southern siblings, Dr. Jody Kimball-Kinney and nurse Collette Kimball-Kinney. While Colette has been less developed, Jody has been a fresh addition, and his more traditional worldviews are certainly borderline/completely sexist, but he still manages to be charming — probably because of his accent.

It’s been a hard few months for fans of “The Mindy Project;” though the breakup is true to the show’s characters, that doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy — neither for the fictional couple experiencing it nor for the viewers who have lost all sense of reality, and believe they themselves are personally involved. “The Mindy Project” deserves praise for straying from classic rom-com tropes, and through this, Mindy hopefully will return to being the confident woman we love to love, after having learned some life lessons along the way. That’s not to say that Mindy and Danny will never get back together, or that you won’t feel exuberance when and if they do. But for now, let’s appreciate that a show that essentially started off as a serialized rom-com — which in the words of Kaling, means it pretty much was a “subgenre of sci-fi” — has become one of the most realistic shows on TV right now.

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