Good TV can be tough to quantify. It can be serious or funny, glossy or gritty, HBO or Sesame Street, the product of collaboration or a single voice wearing every hat. It’s entertainment for millions of people that we let into our private homes, and our lives, sometimes for years at a time. Sometimes TV is good, but it doesn’t stick in our hearts; sometimes we know it’s shoddy, and we love it anyway. Which brings us to the question that comes up every Tuesday night on Fox: Is The Mindy Project good TV?
In a lot of ways, it isn’t. It’s messy and inconsistent and nonsensical. It has a promising romantic-comedy concept, but haphazard execution. We’re supposed to root for Mindy to find love, but she’s often a terrible person. In a little over a season, four supporting characters have been written out and seven have been written in; the ensemble isn’t really supporting anybody. All told, if thoughtful storylines and polished comedy are your thing, go watch reruns of Modern Family.
But in so many other ways, like joy, delight, hilarity, random hip-hop dancing, and attractive goofballs falling in love, it’s gotten so, so great—from Mindy Kaling loyalty viewing to appointment TV, really, in about six episodes flat. The weird thing is, the bones of the show haven’t changed; a lot of its flaws are written into the premise of the show. But there’s some kind of TV judo going on here, in that the physics have changed. It’s the same show, but in learning to play to its own silly strengths, it feels about a thousand times more magnetic.
For one thing, they’ve stopped the boyfriend carousel and given us something to pay attention to, for now. One difficulty of the romantic-comedy series is the endless stream of love interests, none of whom feel important—especially when there’s an obvious soulmate waiting in the wings. One way to solve this and gain a little momentum is to write in a few significant significant others along the way—your Aidans and your Treys, in Sex and the City parlance, to bring up a show that dealt with this issue pretty well. (Mindy gave this a shot, bringing in Anders Holm as Mindy’s cute minister/missionary fiance, Casey; still, even he never quite stuck.) Another is to cut out the middlemen and just go for it with the obvious soulmate. New Girl dove into this type of storyline last year with Jess and Nick, to excellent results at the time, but it’s turned into a cautionary tale: this post-Nick/Jess season has so little momentum, it’s practically moving backwards.
Regardless, that’s where Mindy seems to be headed: in the last moments before the winter hiatus, Mindy made out with handsome curmudgeon/soulmate Danny Castellano (Chris Messina), rather satisfyingly, in the back of an airplane. This week’s returning episodes ended with them snuggled up together, reading Bridget Jones’s Diary aloud—obvious boyfriend behavior. Whether it’s a good move long-term or not, it’s been a jolt of energy for the show; after the fact, everyone was talking about that airplane kiss. It also, incidentally, condenses all the best parts of the show into one storyline. Mindy and Danny are the most interesting characters in the Mindy universe, and Messina and Kaling are spot-on together, and this just gives them more time to put their flawless comic and romantic chemistry to work, and for Messina to do silly/sexy dances to 90s hip-hop songs. A victory, obviously.
They’ve also stopped the supporting-cast revolving door, which is one of those production-side things that ends up impacting the creative side. Mindy has struggled with its ensemble from the start: who should be in it, how much attention to give them, and who among them is actually funny. (With regards to Ike Barinholtz as Morgan, two words: SMALL DOSES.) But things are getting better! The final casting change took place earlier this season, when Adam Pally, freed up after the cancellation of Happy Endings, joined up as bro-y OB/GYN Peter Prentice—and immediately became the glue of the supporting cast. This character could so easily have been a) an unlovable disaster or b) maybe worse, another supporting doctor who doesn’t quiiiiite have enough to do (sorry Ed Weeks you’re so handsome), but Pally has turned out to be a much-needed source of grounding and focus for the non-Mindy/Danny portion of the cast. Maybe the writing staff just knows what to do with him; maybe Pally himself is just the right amount of cute/skeevy; maybe he plays extra well with his costars; whatever it is, it feels like he’s singlehandedly rescuing the supporting cast.
And, really, they’ve gone for it, and I think that’s the key. Even more than other sitcom casts, this crew is game for goofy, undignified physical comedy. Almost by definition, it doesn’t always work—there was this one time, with a disapproving Mindy and a frat-house stripper pole? But sometimes the payoff is big: Mindy and Danny’s horrifying attempt at airplane-bathroom sex, Danny’s terrible Bridget Jones accent, basically Morgan’s entire existence. Danny’s Aaliyah dance—and I’m sorry to have to say this; I love it, too—makes no sense and isn’t something Danny Castellano would really do, but it’s a tiny, .gif-able moment of joy, and that’s its entire purpose. In a way, it’s the emblematic scene from this season of the show: funny because it’s funny, sweet because it’s sweet, and not totally concerned with making sense. And that’s what makes it great. (That, and Messina’s shoulder-brush. Because, come on.)