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‘The Mindy Project’ Tackles Domestic Abuse (and Rom-Com Convention) in Its Surprising Fourth Season

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When The Mindy Project debuted in 2012, one of its two main inspirations, the big-screen romantic comedy, was already dead. Kate Hudson’s last studio rom-com (Something Borrowed) was released the year before, Katherine Heigl’s (Life as We Know It) the year before that. With their Harry/Sally-esque slant-rhyming names, The Mindy Project‘s central couple, Mindy (Mindy Kaling) and Danny (Chris Messina), stepped in to fill the void left by a film and television industry increasingly uninterested in love.

It’s always been easy to root for Mindy and Danny — as long as you didn’t think too hard about their relationship. But as Tuesday’s midseason finale proved, series creator Kaling is no longer interested in simply aping rom-com conventions, as when Danny flew to India in the third-season finale to finally meet Mindy’s parents as a grand romantic gesture. Rather, she’s upending her characters’ happily ever after in favor of surprisingly subtle explorations of working motherhood and partner abuse — developments that have taken The Mindy Project to new levels of emotional sophistication and into pockets of feminist concerns rarely explored in pop culture.

Last night’s “When Mindy Met Danny” ended with Mindy’s tear-stained decision to move out of Danny’s apartment and back into her old one, despite two major reasons to stay together: their engagement and their infant son. With Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me” keening in the background, the show allowed the audience to mourn the possible end of this 2.5-year relationship. Still, Mindy’s resolve to leave was a relief, for the past seven or so episodes had seen new daddy Danny become his most sexist and paternalistic self, culminating in his insistence that Mindy give up her job as an OB-GYN and have more children (that she doesn’t want). In the most recent episode, the show argues, through a story line about how the two doctors met, that Danny was always a jerk — we just refused to see it.

It’s a compelling argument. Genre expectations convinced viewers of what we might not believe in real life: that the hilariously vain, pop-culture-obsessed Mindy was the right fit for the self-serious, traditional-minded Danny. Despite working as colleagues in the same medical office, Mindy and Danny have a relationship that has always suggested that of an outrageous child and a disciplining parent. The Mindy Project‘s other key inspiration is The Office‘s Michael Scott. And, just as Steve Carell’s soft-hearted but bumblingly abrasive regional manager was routinely humiliated until he learned to grow up, Mindy’s immaturity has always been punished by Danny’s quiet admonishments. Maybe that’s the price to pay for love.

So we made excuses. It was great to see an interracial couple on network TV, especially from the woman of color’s p.o.v., and she was chubby (for Hollywood) to boot. In another nod to Nora Ephron, the show gave us an iconic kissing scene on top of the Empire State Building. Plus, Messina said “baaabe” so needily. Yeah, there was that whole story line last season where Danny sabotaged Mindy’s application for a career-advancing fellowship at Stanford because he thought (in a pretty damning assumption) that she was only threatening to go as an attempt to manipulate a proposal out of him. But love conquers all, right?

To be fair, viewers have often had to overlook the show’s failings. The side characters, for example, have always been a rotating cast of meh, including this season’s disappointing additions of Garret Dillahunt and Fortune Feimster as a Southern brother-and-sister pair. Kaling also angered some fans last year with an anal-sex episode in which Danny lies about how he ended up in a different place than Mindy expected: “I slipped.” I’m not the only viewer who cringed at Danny’s worsening, possibly irredeemable behavior this season, as he pressured Mindy into leaving her job and agreeing to have more kids and she began taking birth control pills on the sly in response. Rom-com tradition led me to assume the show still wanted us to root for them to make it work.

Perhaps Kaling and her writers have finally earned our trust. This week’s retconning of Mindy and Danny’s relationship will certainly leave some feeling betrayed, but this version of The Mindy Project — where love can be celebrated while exposed as not always enough to sustain a dysfunctional relationship — is one that takes full advantage of the show’s strengths.

Danny’s transformation from fundamentally decent grouch to controlling, amoral creep takes place after they’ve become a family. That makes storytelling sense. After resisting the idea of committing to Mindy for so long, Danny has a vested interest in Mindy’s future after the birth of their son — an interest that manifests in reproductive coercion of his fiancée by trying to impose a lifestyle and a kind of relationship (that of a stay-at-home mom and a working dad) that she doesn’t want. And as a parent, Mindy’s no longer a child who warrants disciplining, but a partner who needs to be heard. It’s a heartbreaking but vital illustration of how Mindy has outgrown Danny — and how the perfect lover or spouse may be completely wrong as a parenting partner. And it’s quietly terrifying that Danny believes keeping track of Mindy’s ovulation cycle, seducing her when she’s most fertile, and imposing his desire for more children on his career-minded fiancée is OK.

The depiction of Danny’s coercion is also refreshing for the social context in which it takes place: In our entertainment, we rarely see educated and successful professional women like Mindy finding themselves in abusive relationships. Also bracing is the show’s acknowledgement of the still largely taboo (in pop culture) idea that childcare and drastically constricting family size might be the only thing that keeps women thriving in the workforce. By any definition, Mindy is “having it all.” But Kaling asserts with straightforward candor that it’s a precarious juggling act that requires plenty of support — which Danny isn’t interested in providing.

Messina was absent from four episodes this season while filming a movie. If the actor is exiting the show, it’s promising that Kaling, who reportedly exercises more control over The Mindy Project since it moved to Hulu, is daring something this radical with a character she once described as a “wish fulfillment” boyfriend. From the show’s pilot, when Danny told Mindy she should lose fifteen pounds, he’s always been a red flag. It’s time we paid attention to it.

The Mindy Project airs on Hulu.

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