The Mindy Projection

The first episode of The Mindy Project since the series moved to Hulu takes a Sliding Doors approach to romance.

Yes, that is Joseph Gordon-Levitt in bed with Mindy. Yes, things get sort of weird. (Hulu)

[Small spoilers ahead.]

The Mindy Project,” Mindy Kaling writes in her new book, Why Not Me?, “is most inspired by Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.” The show is a rom-com. Its male lead, Danny Castellano, is basically a Staten Island-raised version of Fitzwilliam Darcy. And while its female lead, Mindy Lahiri, is “much less like Elizabeth Bennet than she is a combination of Carrie Bradshaw and Eric Cartman,” the show also features miscommunication and confusion and mutual arrogance and mutual humblings and supporting characters both well-meaning and meddling, all of these things having the combined effect of preventing—or almost-preventing—the central couple from getting together.
With “getting together” meaning, in the Austenian sense, “getting married.”
Given all that, Kaling initially envisioned The Mindy Project, she writes, going something like this:

Boy meets Girl. Boy hates Girl. Girl is not that crazy about Boy either. Eventually Girl wears Boy down with friendliness. Boy and Girl become confidantes. Boy grows to love Girl but can’t express it. Boy and Girl get very close to marrying other boys and girls. Boy realizes he was being kind of dick. Girls realizes she was being judgmental and superficial. Boy and Girl have sex. Boy and Girl accidentally get pregnant. Boy and Girl love each other as best they can and live happily ever after.

It’s a formula that could easily become boring/frustrating/saccharine. It doesn’t, though. The Mindy Project manages to inject both heart and humor into its bare-bones, borrowed plot structure. The final scenes of last season’s finale, in particular—the last episode aired by Fox before The Mindy Project moved to Hulu for the current season—found Mindy and Danny, pregnant and in love, talking about getting engaged. Mindy wanted that. But Danny didn’t. Not because he didn’t love Mindy—not because he didn’t want to be with her, in the almost-Austenian way—but because, being both a child and a man of divorce, he was deeply suspicious of marriage.
Mindy empathized, but refused to compromise.
“It’s not weird to want your boyfriend to get down on one knee, and to meet your parents, and to get you a ring,” she told Danny, tearfully, sticking to her guns.
“Marriage means nothing!” he protested.
“It means something to me,” she replied.
The episode ended with Danny flying to India to meet Mindy’s parents, with him going to Mindy’s parents’ apartment building, with a door opening, and with … well, we didn’t know, really, what happened after that. The season ended, abruptly.
The newest episode of The Mindy Project combines that opening door with a Sliding one. Mindy, not sure where her boyfriend is and assuming the worst (“Why would Danny run away? When all I wanted was to get married? I mean, I’m pregnant with his child!”), murmurs angrily that “my life would be so much better if I’d just fallen in love with someone else.”
Cue the dream-sequence-that-doubles-as-an-alternate-reality-exploration—one that is, she’ll later say, “like It’s a Wonderful Life,” except “in color” and “not boring.” Mindy finds herself waking up in a strange, beautiful bed. (“Where am I?” she wonders, at first. “Oh no, did I break into Mariah Carey’s penthouse and fall asleep again?”) It turns out that she is home—in a sprawling apartment with a view of Gramercy Park and an absurd variety of wall treatments—and married. Not to Danny, but to a guy named Matt (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who is a producer for the Real Housewives franchise, and who has not only met Andy Cohen, but is best friends with him, and who is also an amazing cook, and who also got her an enormous engagement ring. Mindy still works as a doctor at Shulman & Associates; instead of founding her own fertility clinic, though, she has created, as a side gig, a company called “Delectable Desires” (which provides, Matt reminds her, “slutty girdles for the sexually active obese”).
Dream-Danny, Mindy soon learns, treats her with the distant, only vaguely affectionate disdain he treated her with when The Mindy Project first started. Dream-Danny is also dating Freida Pinto, whom he met at spin class when their “quads brushed,” erotically.
While all this is going on, in the “real” world Danny is in India, pretending to help Mindy’s parents arrange a marriage for her so he won’t have to tell them that he’s the one who got her pregnant. Morgan, being Morgan, finds a way to fly to India and inject himself into the proceedings. The Big Bang Theory’s Kunal Nayyar, thoroughly de-nerded for the role, guest-stars as a young widower who ends up being the team’s likeliest candidate for Mindy-marrying.
There is, it should go without saying, an extra-absurdist element to all of this. But there’s also a deep and very real anxiety—a very Austenian anxiety—at its core, which has to do with the basic truth that luck and fate are inextricably intertwined. There’s an element of chance, always, that determines the people we love, the people who in turn determine the courses of our lives. Mindy, had things gone very slightly differently for her, very well could have ended up with a reality-show producer who makes her croissant-based breakfast sandwiches and happily displays her South Park-themed pinball machine in their otherwise Adler-ized living room. Danny very well could have ended up with Freida Pinto.
But love has a way of conferring the luck with a sense of destiny. Being with him, Mindy tells Dream-Danny, was “what was meant to happen.” And “I don’t care if we’re not married,” she tells the real one, finally, when he comes back from India and interrupts her crazy dream. “I just want to be with you, okay?”
Luckily, he feels the same way.