How 'The Mindy Project' Became One of TV's Funniest Sitcoms

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·Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment
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Mindy Kaling, Chris Messina, and Rhea Pearlman in 'The Mindy Project'
Mindy Kaling, Chris Messina, and Rhea Pearlman in 'The Mindy Project'

Now in the midst of its third season, The Mindy Project has become one of the most consistently engaging half-hours on network television, while still being a frequently contradictory, confused, experimental work-in-progress. Which is to Mindy Kaling and Fox's credit: As creator, Kaling has shown a winning willingness to keep tinkering rather than settle into a formula, and as the show's network home, Fox has shown a rare commitment to trying to let the show find its way.

Right now The Mindy Project, airing Tuesday nights, is in the midst of one of its biggest shifts. Kaling's Mindy Lahiri is pregnant; the New York-based character is also conducting a cross-continental romance with the father of her child, Chris Messina's Danny Castellano, as she completes a research fellowship in California.

Both of these plot details are fraught with pitfalls. Many sitcoms have taught us that separating characters geographically can slow down a show's momentum, and introducing a baby into a series' mix can alter the tone in a way that mars the comedy and drives away a chunk of the audience.

Yet so far, The Mindy Project has earned big laughs from these situations. Part of this is due to the sharpening definition of Danny's character. Initially introduced as a vague guy's-guy, then morphing into a neurotic fussbudget, Danny is now a more fully-realized creation: A hardened New Yorker, a (sometimes too-)dedicated doctor, a loyal boyfriend, and, in general, the voice of stubborn reason and realism in a show dedicated to presenting whimsy and absurdity — all of these traits have made Danny an essential counterpoint to the rest of the cast and Mindy in particular.

The result is that Mindy and Danny are now one of the most likable couples in TV comedy, thoroughly believable in the context of the nuttiness surrounding them. The Feb. 3 episode was a model of this form. The action shifted between Stanford and Manhattan, and centered on Danny's idea of fixing up a battered apartment for the two of them to move into. It was complete with the kind of excellent Mindy throwaway lines that give this show its distinctiveness. (Mindy, upon entering the dowdy building: "Wow, it's like the brothel Don Draper was raised in.") And the episode moved along the perennial tussle The Mindy Project has with its male characters: The doctor's office was beginning to feel over-populated with Danny, Ed Weeks's always ill-defined British doc Jeremy (is he a prissy fop or a good-time bro?), and Adam Pally's amiable lunk Dr. Peter Prentice (who seemed initially to have been brought in to take over the bro humor but had the effect of pushing Jeremy to the margins of the show).

Related: 'Mindy Project' EP Says Adam Pally's Exit 'Was the Perfect Time' for Mindy's Big News

Now The Mindy Project is well on its way to engineering Pally's exit, since his character is following Tracy Wigfield's rather wan Lauren to Austin, Texas, and thus removes the romantic-triangle subplot (Jeremy-Lauren-Peter) that was slowing things down.

Kaling and her writers have a good fix on Minday Lahiri — intelligent and pop-culture obsessed (already planning her reality show after having 12 kids with Danny "Keeping Up With the Castellanos Plus Lahiri"); sex-positive and brains-positive, and not often in that order. I wish The Mindy Project had the audience size it deserves; as a romantic workplace-comedy, it's better than most of the Hollywood feature films in this genre that have been released during this show's existence. Tell your friends.

The Mindy Project airs Tuesdays at 9:30 p.m. on Fox.