Rom, Calm: The Mindy Project's New Spin on Coupling Up

The Hulu show is the latest to explore that most modern of things: the absence of romance.

Mindy and Danny: Will she or won't she? (Hulu)

(This post contains mild spoilers for the fifth season of The Mindy Project.)

In a late-in-the-series episode of Sex and the City, Carrie, frustrated with the pressures women face to channel their emotions into institutions … marries herself. The circumstances of the unlikely union are extremely silly: Carrie had gone to her friend’s Kyra’s baby shower—to which she wore Manolos, because she’s Carrie—and the shoes, somewhere between the hors d’oeuvre and the party games, disappeared. Kyra refused to reimburse Carrie for the expensive footwear (on the grounds, she argued, that it’s silly to spend $485 on shoes). So Carrie—having roughly calculated all the money she’d spent on gifts celebrating her friends’ many weddings and babies—informed Kyra that she, too, would be married. She had registered for only one gift, for this celebration of her singleness: a pair of Manolo Blahnik stilettos, size seven.

The episode—it is titled, by the way, “A Woman’s Right to Shoes”—remains one of the series’ most iconic, both despite and because of its absurdity. Marrying yourself! It’s pointless. It’s rebellious. It’s enticing. It’s a concept that more and more women, in the age of increased economic parity, are toying with. Which might be why it informs the latest romantic plot twist in a show that has been full of them: The Mindy Project.

The season-five premiere of Mindy Kaling’s now-on-Hulu series finds the eponymous romantic heroine choosing between two guys: Danny (Chris Messina), Mindy’s ex and her former co-worker and the father of her young son, Leo; and Jody (Garret Dillahunt), her current co-worker. (The Mindy Project is a rom-com that is also, for better or for worse, a workplace comedy.) Mindy can make a case for, and against, either guy. Danny is the father of her kid! They have wonderful chemistry! He’s approximately as good-looking as that actor Chris Messina! But he and Mindy also have different values, and want fundamentally different things out of marriage—and, really, out of life.

Jody, on the other hand, is caring, and dashing, and gallant. (Summoning the blithe materialism of Sex and the City—remember when Big wooed Carrie back with a walk-in closet?—Jody bought Mindy an apartment as a grand gesture of his affection for her. Yep, a whole apartment.) The “but” with him, though? As Mindy tells her clinic’s receptionist, Beverly (Beth Grant), who briefly abandons her typical role as the office crank to function as a voice of reason: Mindy just doesn’t “feel a spark” with him.

So on the one hand the episode (“Decision 2016,” it’s titled) revolves around that classic romantic trope, the woman having to choose between two guys who adore her. Edward versus Jacob. Rick versus Victor. Prince One versus Prince Two.

But the latest Mindy Project update also revolves around a larger decision: the choice between settling down and … not settling. The choice between social expectation—marriage, babies, with each dependent on the other—and personal desire. “I’m a single mother barreling toward 40,” Mindy tells Beverly. “I should pick one of the rich, handsome doctors that will have me.”

Beverly disagrees. “If neither one of these guys is right, wait for someone special to come along.” (The receptionist adds, Beverly-ly: “Until then, get escorts.”)

Mindy nods. “So ... don’t operate out of desperation,” she says. She pauses. “That never occurred to me.”

The Mindy Project is, on its surface, as light and as bright as the decor in Mindy’s Pinterest-perfect office: It is a romantic comedy in the cheeriest, most optimistic sense of that genre. Lately, though, the show has been expanding beyond the will-they-or-won’t-they premises of the traditional rom-com to explore the broader phenomena that affect women’s lives, be they “love lives” or not. The Mindy Project, in its last season, took on subjects like work-life balance and having kids while having a career and—via Mindy’s egg-freezing clinic and her own pregnancy—the time-bound nature of fertility. It tackled vaguely taboo subjects like the fear—not just the nervousness, but the full-on fear—that can accompany the physical demands of childbirth. It also tackled an even more taboo anxiety: the worry that “mother” is a job that cannot be quit if you turn out not to be good at it.

Mostly, though, The Mindy Project, the ultimate rom-com, questioned romance itself—as a social expectation, as a kind of institution. The show, last season, explored the dullness that can settle into long-term relationships. And the difference, in those relationships, between “talking” and “communicating.” And the ways one’s job can provide so many of the things—excitement, devotion, love—that were once expected to be fulfilled by romantic relationships. The primary pressure point in the long-running romance between Mindy and Danny was that she had, the whole time, a side piece: her job. One that she is really, really good at. One that makes many demands of her. One that she loves.

But that point took a while to reach. It took Mindy a while to realize how much her job—and her life outside of romantic partnership—mattered to her. The season-three finale found Mindy declaring, to Danny, her desire for marriage—her willingness, in fact, to give him up if he did not share that desire. It wasn’t an ultimatum so much as a pragmatic recognition of her own needs; and, in the era of the Cool Girl, it was its own kind of rebellious move.

Now, though, with another season having begun, Mindy has rebelled again. And so, for that matter, has the guy who met her desire for marriage with his own aggressive ambivalence about it. “I need someone to take care of me,” Danny tells her, in “Decision 2016”—“and for whatever reason, you don’t need that anymore.”

She doesn’t. (At least, in a show that can sometimes resemble a tilt-a-whirl, for now.) And so the conclusion to the mini-rom-com that played out as the show premiered this week featured the ultimate rom-comic standby: a happy ending. Mindy rejected both men. Danny wasn’t right for her; Jody revealed himself to be, as a coda to all that gallantry, kind of a jerk. The episode summoned a litany of cinematic cliches—to announce her decision to Jody, Mindy ran to his apartment, through the pouring rain, through heavy Manhattan traffic, in her nightgown—but they were all, it would turn out, there to serve a new kind of couple: Mindy and … Mindy. Mindy and her job, and her friends, and her son. Single, but not alone.

So Mindy, by the end of things, had pulled a Carrie: She had effectively said “I do” to herself. She had summoned the thinking of her writer and portrayer, Mindy Kaling, who told an interviewer last year, “In my 20s, and especially in my teens, I completely fetishized a wedding. But I think much less about marriage now. It’s less interesting to me.” “Decision 2016” brought a 2016 spin, in the end, to the note that Kyra included when she sent Carrie, finally, her stiletto-heeled wedding gift: “Carrie, congratulations, we couldn’t be happier for you and you.”