There’s something that seems so very Mindy Kaling—or at least so very Mindy Lahiri, her sitcom character—about The Mindy Project’s confident move to Hulu.
Rejection by Fox, which canceled the comedy after three seasons, be damned. Find a younger, hotter partner—in this case a streaming service aggressively announcing itself as a serious creator of original television—and strut out arm-in-arm with the new beau looking just as good as, and maybe even better than, ever.
The Season Four premiere of The Mindy Project, which premieres Tuesday, is the rom-com equivalent of the revenge fantasy.
Titled “While I Was Sleeping,” it does everything that the show did so well on Fox—simultaneously skewering and paying loving homage to romantic comedy tropes and dialogue—but with just a little bit more zing.
Don’t be fooled. This is still very much the same Mindy Project.
Mindy Lahiri is still the spirit guide for a generation of millennials unapologetic about their vapid or shallow tendencies and unapologetic about their guilty pleasures. A worship of the Kardashian clan and body-positive affinity for junk food does not negate a person’s career success, render her unintelligent, or mean that she is unempowered.
Kaling’s line delivery and asides are still spectacularly relatable, as if the spirit of the current phenomenon of internet memes and Gchat confessionals had come to life. (“Hungry?” she’s asked. “Yes. Always,” she replies, consistently owning and embracing the joke rather than allowing any of Mindy’s self-effacing humor to come off as mean or degrading.)
And her love of romantic comedies and pop culture is ever endearing, especially in the meta manner in which the show owns up to it. In fact, “While I Was Sleeping” even references its own borrowing of plot devices from Sliding Doors, 13 Going on 30, and It’s a Wonderful Life in its dialogue, to winning effect.
The episode begins seconds after the show’s heart-wrenching season three finale.
Mindy is pregnant, started her own business, and she and boyfriend Danny Castellano (Chris Messina) fight about his refusal to marry her. As a seemingly redeeming grand romantic gesture, Danny flies to India to meet Mindy’s parents and presumably ask them for her hand in marriage: “I’m Danny Castellano and I’m in love with your daughter.”
The series has always had a knack for filling its plot with sweet, genuine emotion—injecting it with sharp humor before it swells too big and flies into schmaltzy territory. As such, Season Four begins with the follow-up punchline to Danny’s sweeping monologue.
“I’m the father of her baby and I need you to know that I will love them and take care of them until the day,” he says. “But I don’t believe in marriage, due to some personal experiences that I had, which I won’t get into now.” Naturally he begins rattling off those experiences.
Mindy, unaware that Danny is off in India attempting to endear himself to her family and still hurt from his rejection, wishes that she had fallen in love with someone else and drifts off to sleep. When she wakes up, she’s living out her very own version of a “be careful what you wish for” alternate reality: She’s not just in love with, but married to, another man (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), and it has turned her into an awful person.
At first things seem amazing. She seems so happy that a co-worker assumes “there’s a new pop song out celebrating butt size.” (There is: Jason DeRulo’s “Big Ole Cheekys”).
Her new husband is a producer of the Real Housewives—“my favorite franchise of shows.” He’s charming and adorable—duh, he’s Joseph Gordon-Levitt—but he also advocates for an open marriage that has Mindy cheating on him. Soon, she learns that he championed her abandoning her fertility clinic in order to start a business that sells “slutty girdles for the sexually active obese.”
It’s not long before Mindy is just a girl standing in front of a guy (in the rain, naturally) asking him to love her, in order to reverse back the alternate reality.
The episode is sweet and sharp and clever and everything The Mindy Project was when it was at its best, and perhaps deserves even more admiration for finding a way to pair its two leads together and dismiss all notions that TV characters that graduate from will-they/won’t-they status to committed relationships are creative time bombs.
(“If a couple gets together and it’s boring, the characters are bad,” Kaling said, to wit, in an interview with Hitfix.)
But critical bouquets were never The Mindy Project’s problem. Kaling’s earned enough of them over the show’s Fox run to quit and start a second career as a florist. The frustrating problem was that no one—or at least not enough people—was watching her show. It did get canceled, after all.
Viewers watching crappy shows and ignoring good ones is hardly a new phenomenon, but this was a case where the quality/popularity dissonance felt thornier than usual.
Here was an actress, writer, and producer headlining her own comedy on broadcast television who was not white, did not have a body type that could be confused for a lollipop with a smile drawn on it, and had an unabashedly original creative voice—which was clear, refreshing, current, and hilarious in its own right. Why wasn’t everyone on board?
It should come as no surprise that, as Kaling recently told the Los Angeles Times, there was interest from several different platforms to revive the show after Fox had canceled it. Kaling is one of the strongest examples of what is insufferably referred to in media circles as “an influencer.” Her show, even if not a ratings success, had a passionate following of loyal fans and was considered “hip.” And it was, you know, actually good.
The appeal of getting in bed with interesting talent or catering to a small battalion of enthusiastic fans instead of an army of ambivalent ones is directly behind the recent trend of streaming services and cable networks “rescuing” shows that have been canceled by broadcast networks. Cougar Town, Southland, The Killing, and Community are all recent examples.
And as nice as it is for good, small shows to find good, small homes after networks have given up on them, there still is the big question: Does anyone actually follow them to these new addresses?
Maddeningly, it’s hard to say. It should seem logical that a show with ho-hum ratings on broadcast TV will have ho-hum ratings on cable, and that’s certainly the case for Cougar Town, which saw its ratings go from a small 3-ish million viewers an episode by the time it left ABC to a small 2-ish million viewers on TBS. The caveat, of course, is supposed to be comparative barometers of success—those numbers were terrible for ABC, but on par with TBS’s other comedies.
But it’s unclear how much the already existing fan base of cult-hit shows like The Killing, Community, or even The Mindy Project is a viewership boon for streaming services. Netflix notoriously keeps its numbers undisclosed, so it’d be impossible to say how many people followed The Killing from AMC to its platform, or even how it compared to other Netflix originals.
And while there was a deafening amount of buzz for Community’s transition to Yahoo Screen after several seasons of flatlining ratings on NBC, what kind of pulse it had there for its 13-episode sixth season is similarly a mystery. Anecdotally, however, we can report muted enthusiasm for the series in circles where that deafening buzz had once been.
But when we come to the topic of The Mindy Project and viewership numbers, maybe the question should be whether it even matters. There’s a line in the Hulu premiere where Mindy tries to explain to Danny the alternate version of her life she was just living. “It was like It’s a Wonderful Life except in color and wasn’t boring,” she says.
As far as I’m concerned, every time a new Mindy Project episode airs, an angel gets its wings. The platform—Hulu, Fox, or otherwise—is beside the point.