In Praise of Boring Romance
In a pivotal moment, The Mindy Project appreciates the small pragmatisms that make relationships work.
In every relationship there will come a time, sooner but much more probably later, when Things Get Real. When the small stuff of new romance—the daily discoveries, the pet names, the in-jokes—give way to bigger questions. Do you see yourself getting married? Do you want kids? If so, how many? And, if so (no pressure or anything, but), when?
And also: How will those kids be cared for? Will that caring require one of us, or both of us, to scale back our careers? If so, who will do the back-scaling? For how long?
So, pretty much: Where is this going?
And: How sure are you, really, about any of that?
One of the ongoing surprises of The Mindy Project—which, like Master of None and a handful of other recent sitcoms-slash-rom-coms, tries to say something about the romantic culture brought on by feminism and texting and Tinder—has been how insistently the show has bypassed all of this romantic realtalk. That’s mostly because, in service to the obligations of sitcomic tension, the show’s protagonists, Mindy and Danny, have had the answers for the most part decided for them: Mindy dates other people; Danny gets jealous; then they get together. Mindy gets pregnant; then they get engaged. They have their baby; then they think about who will care for him, day to day. For Mindy and Danny, the thing comes before the decision-to-do-the-thing, almost always. With the result that, among other things, the assorted awkwardnesses of real-getting are mostly avoided.
Until now. Mindy and Danny, at the almost-end of The Mindy Project’s fourth season, find themselves in a state of existential crisis. They have love and a kid and a ring, but none of the things that traditionally come with them: security, steadiness, certainty about the future. They have no wedding date. No plans for the scaling-up or scaling-back of job responsibilities. No permanent decisions about kid-care. No agreement about whether the kid in question will have a sibling. In living their lives, they have failed, repeatedly, to make plans for them.
Thus: the fight—the inevitable fight—that the show has been building up to for the whole season, and in some sense for the whole series. The tearful blow-out that took place in The Mindy Project’s most recent episode, “Parent Trap.” The one that resulted from these two outspoken, opinionated characters finding themselves—for reasons that are enticingly intricate—thoroughly unable to discuss the big questions about the life they’re planning (and also failing to plan) together. Danny, it turns out, wants another kid—actually, maybe even, several other kids. He also, it further turns out, expects Mindy to give up at least part of the work she loves to raise those kids. Mindy isn’t sure what she wants, more-pregnancy-wise; what she does know, though, is that she’s unwilling to give up her medical practice and a flourishing new business—a fertility treatment center, because irony!—for an expanded family.
So why are these desires just now coming out? Because, on the one hand, talking is not romantic. It’s dull. It’s boring. And: It’s not generally addressed in traditional rom-coms, which tend to prioritize the unspoken—passionate desire, thwarted and fulfilled—over the talked-about. The Things Get Real conversation is about just what its name suggests: the dense reality of relationships. It’s about the stuff that needs to be talked about if a relationship is to have any kind of future. But movies and TV shows and music and the cultural products that double as models for IRL romance haven’t tended to do much modeling when it comes to that talk. They’ve evaded. They’ve ignored. They’ve perpetrated a fairly pernicious fantasy: that relationships, like the one Mindy and Danny have, just happen.
They do not, of course, just happen. And The Mindy Project is now, productively, recognizing that. It is writing into its plot a deep appreciation for realtalk. The other reason that Mindy and Danny haven’t had the Things Get Real conversation is that they both seem to realize, correctly, that talking will force them to confront the profound difference in their desires—not for each other, but for life itself. Danny wants the mother of his children to be around for them, constantly, in a way his mother never was; Mindy wants the career she’s spent her life studying for and preparing for and working for. These desires are not mutually exclusive; they are not, though, fully compatible. They will require some kind of compromise.
A conversation would reveal that. That’s what makes it necessary, and also awkward.
So, since Mindy and Danny can’t seem to talk to each other about what they both want, they resort to lying to each other to force themselves into yet another cart-before-the-horse situation. Danny tries to get Mindy pregnant (tracking her ovulation, taking her on romantic dates, finding himself, repeatedly, without condoms); Mindy, having realized what he’s up to, goes on birth control. Each finds out, via a predictably sitcomic series of events, what the other has been up to; each is angry; each feels, rightly, betrayed. And, yes: All because they can’t talk to each other about matters that are both extremely basic and extremely broad.
“Every time you disagree with something that I do, it’s a referendum on my character,” Mindy tells Danny during their fight. “If I want to go to work, it means I’m a bad mother. If I want to have a second glass of wine, it means I’m out of control. In your eyes, everything single thing I do is more evidence that I’m a bad person. I thought I made good decisions, and now you’re just making all the decisions for me.”
And that’s the other thing about the fight: It’s inevitable, but it’s also inevitably personal. In absence of a straightforward conversation, too many resentments have built up; all the slights have lost, in the aggregate, their slightness. The climactic disagreement represents The Mindy Project in full rom-com mode; it celebrates, however, not romance itself—the fulfilled longing that constitutes the traditional “happy ending”—but instead the things that are the opposite, and also a crucial component, of romance: the mundane decisions and revisions that are necessary when two lives are woven together.
Mindy and Danny love each other; that is not in question. What is in question at this point, though, is their ability to have a future together. Their entire relationship is at stake because they haven’t been able to face its pragmatic inevitabilities. “The Parent Trap” celebrates, in its way, what The Mindy Project itself has mostly left unsaid: the frank admissions, the inconvenient truths, the awkward realities of the day-to-day. The stuff that is not at all romantic but that is, for better or for worse, life.