“By now, you know I love romantic comedies,” Mindy Lahiri (Mindy Kaling) muses in the first moments of the last season of “The Mindy Project,” over a montage of her youthful selves watching “The Princess Bride” and sighing through mouthfuls of sour candy. “The real reason I love romantic comedies is because they always end the same way: marriage,” she adds.
“And then, I got married.”
Cut to 30-something Mindy ― doctor, mother, stepmother and wife ― in bed next to her husband, an adorable nurse named Ben (Bryan Greenberg). The two got married at the end of last season, but our last glimpse of Mindy showed her staring wistfully through a subway window; it’s just minutes after she joined her life and family with Ben’s, but she looks pensive rather than overjoyed. Her expression in that moment is the living embodiment of “Is that all there is?”, which turns out to be the title, and topic, of the premiere episode of Season 6.
Plenty of sitcoms center on marriage, of course ― the nagging wives, the schlumpy husbands, the kids who say the darnedest things ― but “The Mindy Project” is a sitcom about a woman who believes she’s too glamorous to live a sitcom life. Now that she has it, she’s not sure what to do with it.
Mindy loves having a hot husband. She loves her spunky stepdaughter, Lindsay. She definitely loves being a successful rom-com heroine. But she doesn’t seem to love marriage all that much, a surely unsurprising revelation to those who’ve followed the show. The first episode unfolds over a rare week when both of her kids are out of the house. Ben repeatedly tries to coax his new wife to come home and hang out with him on the couch after work. Instead, she finds excuse after excuse to stay out late with her office pals, only returning home to pass out next her slumbering spouse. One of her colleagues wants his girlfriend to move in with him, but she’s not sure; another coworker wants to become a single mom by choice. These are relationship-defining moments, and though they aren’t Mindy’s, she’d rather be part of those than enjoy her own already-defined life.
What Mindy wants to be is a rom-com heroine, of course; she resents the stigma attached to being single in her late 30s, but she’s happiest when her actual happy ending is perpetually around the corner rather than in the rearview mirror. Romantic comedies end with the wedding; it’s hard to be the star in your own version of “When Harry Met Sally” if you’re off the market. If a lead is coupled off at the beginning of a romantic comedy, there’s only one way forward: she realizes she’s bored, unfulfilled and unappreciated, and the relationship ends in time for her to fall in love with her costar. So that’s exactly what needs to happen for Mindy.
This marriage was always easy-come, easy-go. Perpetually chasing her romantic climax, Mindy finally ― almost accidentally ― got one with Ben, a handsome nurse who actually wanted to commit. She’s always wanted an enviable husband to slot into her personal romantic comedy, and Ben was offering. Her favorite films didn’t offer a template for what came next, however; the early episodes of Season 6 show her quickly realizing that she has no idea what it means to be a good wife and that her instincts are all wrong. She doesn’t know she should want to hang out on the couch with him and a bottle of wine after work. She doesn’t know she should feel personally invested in whether he lives in New York or takes a new job in Philadelphia. (She also doesn’t know Pennsylvania is a state, but that’s another conversation.)
Mindy’s thirst for an epic love story has always been her Achilles heel, blinding her to the real complexities and flaws of her partners. The reason her love story with her long-time coworker, Danny Castellano, grew into such an authentic, strong connection was because she didn’t see him as a possible Prince Charming. They liked (and sometimes hated) spending time together before they ever fell in love or even dated. Their relationship grew from a long platonic friendship, rather than being predicated, from the start, on his ability to give her a fairy-tale ending.
To be clear, this is a rom-com trope of its own (one the show has already directly parodied in a B-plot featuring B.J. Novak and Eva Amurri Martino), and “The Mindy Project” doesn’t hold up the friends-to-lovers route as a simple solution to Mindy’s hangups. Backing into a romance also had its downsides ― most notably, that they skipped past important conversations about what they both expected from a serious relationship. By the time Mindy realized Danny wanted his future wife to sacrifice her career to focus on family, they’d already gotten engaged and had a child. Rather than falling in love with a fantasy of a man, she’d gotten enmeshed with a real one, but that alone didn’t guarantee a happy ending.
It was clear from the show’s premiere that love couldn’t come easy to Mindy. Turning a rom-com into a TV show requires some fancy footwork. Whereas sitcoms tend to flatten out life’s arcs and struggles, every week the same goofs and futile turmoil, rom-coms heighten them into one big, operatic swoop. “How I Met Your Mother” got around this tension by focusing on the literal years’ worth of dates, relationships and breakups that preceded Ted Mosby actually meeting his children’s mother. “You’re the Worst” offers an anti-romantic comedy, in which the two leads don’t really want a happy ending, and certainly don’t end up happy just because they’ve gotten together, but keep stumbling through a torturously messy relationship together nonetheless.
For “The Mindy Project,” the strategy is “Groundhog Day”-like repetition: meet-cute, conflict, resolution, conflict, breakup, then right back into meet-cute. Some have criticized the show for retreading the same notes, but that’s like criticizing “Groundhog Day” for showing Phil the weatherman reliving February 2 countless times. The hellish cycle is exactly the point. The show is about a woman who wants to live a life that doesn’t exist ― a romantic comedy that never ends ― and it’s exactly because the show continues and continues that her plight becomes clear.
The question, really, is how the show will ever end without undermining its raison d’être. Will Mindy find love, turning the whole show into a long romantic comedy after all? Will she remain single and hopeful, ever the winsome heroine just one meet-cute from bliss? Or will “The Mindy Project” find a way to resolve a show about the impossibility of endings with the inevitability of them? Now in its final season, the show needs to come to grips with the fact that every TV show must have its closing credits one day, no matter how much that distorts our expectations of reality.
You can be highbrow. You can be lowbrow. But can you ever just be brow? Welcome to Middlebrow, a weekly examination of pop culture. Read more here.
- This article originally appeared on HuffPost.