‘The Mindy Project’s’ Disappointing “Big Twist”

Because the world is a cruel place, The Mindy Project has never quite managed to draw the audience it deserves. Despite its consistently on-point writing and delightful ensemble cast, the sitcom has suffered from a steady decline in ratings since it premiered in 2012, and Fox’s axe seems to be constantly dangling over the show’s head. But Tuesday’s episode set the Internet a-buzz thanks to a “BIG TWIST” that wasn’t actually all that big or twisty: Mindy Lahiri is pregnant. 

Those who have stayed loyal to The Mindy Project probably saw this one coming. The pregnancy storyline was written in the stars from the moment Mindy got together with Danny Castellano at the end of last season, resolving two years’ worth of sexual tension and weird, passive-aggressive flirting. Mindy’s quest for a happily-ever-after worthy of a Nora Ephron movie is, in fact, the driving force of the show. As Mindy herself puts it, “People seem to be having these awesome sex lives, and I’m just trying to find a life partner to go apple-picking with. What’s wrong with me?” Season 2 closed with Mindy and Danny lying on the deck of the Empire State Building, arguing about how many children they were going to have and what they were going to name them. (Mindy, naturally, was in favor of nine girls named after the Greek muses, so I suppose the baby-making had to begin with some urgency.)

If this week’s pregnancy revelation wasn’t all that shocking, the timing of it was a disappointment. This season got off to a quietly subversive start with a storyline that saw Mindy leave Danny behind in New York so she could pursue a medical fellowship in San Francisco. Though the couple decided to make a go of it long-distance, the message was clear: a woman’s career should come first. This in itself is hardly novel, but given the trajectory of the show, it was nothing short of shattering. Over the course of two seasons, Mindy’s identity has been shaped by her pursuit of romantic bliss: we watched her pine over the soppy romances of Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail, reluctantly follow a fiancé to Haiti, and burn through a revolving door of lovers in her obsessive desire to find “The One.” That Mindy separated from Danny — the man the show has led us to believe is her one true love — without much in the way of agonizing served as a profound, if not particularly subtle, statement about the importance of a woman’s independence and individuality.

But what will become of Mindy’s independence now that she is inextricably tied to her boyfriend in New York? She finds out about her pregnancy as she is contemplating moving to San Francisco long-term so she can establish a medical practice on the East Coast. Danny — who sees San Francisco as “a giant weed dispensary between dim sum places” — is as yet unaware of the pregnancy, but has made it clear that he doesn’t want to leave New York. The real Mindy, Mindy Kaling, is far too clever to let her character give up on her professional life entirely; in fact, Kaling recently told Entertainment Weekly that the news of a mini Castellano-Lahiri “motivates Mindy even more, professionally.” But the pregnancy plotline has effectively eradicated the possibility of Mindy moving forth unencumbered, of pursuing the life she wants without the unexpected restraints of a family.

It’s probably an exercise in futility to hope that a female character on television could give birth to a child on terms that she chooses, but I had previously thought that The Mindy Project would be the show to do it. For one thing, Mindy is an OBGYN, so if anyone would have the whole birth control thing down pat, it would be her. More importantly, Kaling has done some truly wonderful things when it comes to the representation of women on primetime TV, creating a leading character who is not white, who is not a waitress, and who looks like she has eaten a balanced meal within the past year. The “unplanned pregnancy” trope seems too obvious and too stale for a show that has been willing to take so many risks with its female lead.

Practical considerations were likely at play here. Given The Mindy Project’s dwindling ratings, the show’s writers are probably desperate to drum up some attention, and nothing gets people talking like a baby-oopsie. It is also true that the arrival of a baby in sitcom-land does not have to mean the end of a woman’s story, just like real women’s lives don’t come to a screeching halt once they have children. Parks and Recreation, for example, resisted the temptation to turn Leslie Knope’s pregnancy into a spectacle that overwhelmed the character. Her triplets are an unplanned but welcome surprise, and they don’t cause much of a ripple in the overall narrative of the show. We don’t see Leslie’s growing belly, and once her children are born, they become background figures that never stand in the way of Leslie’s first loves: her town, her friends, and her job.

So while I wish The Mindy Project would have delayed the inevitable until it seemed fitting and right for the character, I am still optimistic that the pregnancy plot line won’t derail its leading lady’s ambitions and dreams. Mindy loves living San Francisco, and I hope she stays there — joined one day, perhaps, by Danny and nine daughters named after the Greek Muses.