Mindy Kaling has never let her show simply coast. From the start, The Mindy Project’s mission has been the formidable task of getting its audience to root for a bubbly rom-com heroine who’s also a sociopath. (A “mild” one, Kaling clarifies in her memoir, Why Not Me?) After nudging doctors Mindy Lahiri (Kaling) and Danny Castellano (Chris Messina) toward the altar for three years on Fox, the fidgety sitcom upended its original premise altogether in last December’s midseason finale on Hulu. And with that, The Mindy Project parted ways with its initial guiding star, Nora Ephron -- in particular, the late filmmaker’s signature pairing of the cheerful girl and the gruff guy in an always chirping New York -- by putting a merciful end to Mindy’s increasingly oppressive relationship with Danny.
When The Mindy Project returns today after a four-month hiatus, it shows our ever-capable Dr. L sharing parenting duties to a cover version of The Beatles’ “We Can Work It Out.” But that “we” isn’t Mindy and Danny anymore; it’s Mindy and baby Leo and, to a lesser extent, her officemates. If there were any lingering flickers of hope that Danny would understand why pressuring Mindy to give up her career and have more children with him led to her fleeing their relationship, his callow rebuke to a fight in the midseason premiere should douse any embers: “You chose your job over having a happy family.”
Though Messina remains on the show, it’s fair to ask what a post-Danny Mindy Project looks like. The question is particularly fraught because Mindy and Danny’s pairing has always been this uneven series’s best asset. As narratively bold as it was to allow the couple’s dysfunctions to wrench them apart, the show now has to rely more than ever on its variably successful workplace ensemble. In an admirable effort to push The Mindy Project into new territory, Kaling appears to have shot off one of its legs -- the good leg, the one that isn’t covered in warts and scales and is barely able to stand on its own.
If the April 12 midseason premiere and the two May episodes made available to critics are any indication, the show is at least committed to moving forward. Mindy has an excellent new foil in Garret Dillahunt’s Southern-gentleman ob-gyn, an out-of-touch prig who hands out handkerchiefs “for blotting this city’s very greasy pizza” to their college-student clients. The usual rom-com rules are thrown out the window when Mindy begins dating again, this time as a single mother.
The show also tackles one of its stickiest critiques -- that its pioneering Indian-American protagonist goes out with only white guys -- in the sure-to-be-controversial May 10 installment that begins with her Desi date calling her a “coconut” (brown on the outside, white on the inside) and follows up with Mindy Lahiri contemplating her ethnic identity, as well as what her son’s should be. Given the mixed response to The Mindy Project’s last attempt at dealing with race (Season 2’s “Mindy Lahiri Is a Racist,” about her clinic’s endorsement by a white-supremacist mommy blogger), the upcoming installment will seem bluntly honest to some viewers and conveniently self-serving to others. For fans (and anti-fans) who’ve been clamoring for the fictional Mindy to be a better role model, Kaling reminds them that they’ve been looking in the wrong place all along. But if they want to get to know Mindy Lahiri on her hilariously narcissistic terms, well, she’s still full of surprises.