For Those Who Love and Hope for Love: The Mindy Project and Romance

The Mindy Project season finale aired last night, and any lifelong fan of romantic comedies was probably left squealing and clutching their battered copies of When Harry Met Sally and You’ve Got Mail. A perfectly crafted thirty-minute homage to some of the best and defining films of the genre, it saw (spoiler alert) Danny Castellano using some tricks from Billy Crystal and Tom Hanks to get back together with Mindy.

The Mindy Project is, of course, no stranger to some of the more popular romcom tropes, or even homage to some of these iconic films. An episode in season one was called “Harry & Sally,” and its storyline concluded in “Harry & Mindy”; the pilot episode included the standard revelation of feelings scene from You’ve Got Mail. Mindy Kaling herself has said many, many, many times how much she loves romantic comedies, and even interviewed Billy Crystal and gushed about When Harry Met Sally the entire time. So of course her love for romcoms is inscribed in the DNA of her show. The Mindy Project generally follows a boyfriend of the week structure, so we get to see Mindy chasing after all kinds of men. That variety allows for a mini-romantic comedy every week, because we get to see it all: the initial attraction, the honeymoon phase, then the crashing realization that something’s wrong. Sometimes, the boyfriends stick around for a few episodes, and when that happens, the trope changes. It’s not a romcom anymore; it’s allowed to expand and become something different.

By nature, TV has a benefit that film does not: it gets to expand. It gets to go on. And because of that, we get the peek behind the curtain that films don’t show us: what happens after the happily-ever-after? How is this relationship that’s been established as something so special, so unique, so life-changing, going to last? And on The Mindy Project, they don’t. Mindy’s met a lot of losers, she’s been dumped, she’s been happy. Heartbreak is just as huge a part of the show as happiness, because in this world where love is ideal and craved and essential, you can’t just have one.

Let’s look at some of the more notable boyfriends Mindy’s had. We meet the first in the pilot: her ex-boyfriend Tom, whose wedding kicks off the show. Then there’s Josh, a lawyer with whom things are going perfectly until Mindy discovers he’s cheating on her – and that he has a drug problem. There’s Sam, her childhood friend who’s only in town for a day, causing them to try and create the most perfect, romantic day ever; Casey, who’s cool and hilarious and is engaged to Mindy until his restlessness in life causes them to break up; Jason, the sophisticated writer she meets on an airplane who constantly condescends her; Graham, the forty-something skater who tries to get Mindy to open up and relax; and, of course, Danny, her co-worker, her sarcastic and grumpy friend who, it turns out, has been right under her nose the whole time. Any one of these men could be the subject of their own movie: look at Four Weddings and a Funeral, where two people who keep briefly interacting turn out to be soulmates, much like what Mindy imagined for herself and Jason. Then there’s Five Year Engagement, which focuses on an engaged couple who grow apart and then back together throughout the course of their engagement, like Mindy and Casey. But on TV, a love story doesn’t have to exist for two hours; some storylines do run their full course in only one episode, but some, the real ones, get room to breathe. If a movie was being made about Mindy and Casey, we’d get a half hour to learn who these people are, how their relationship works, what their plans are, etc. Then an hour of them reacting to whatever hurdle they face – in their case, Casey realizing he doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life. Then another half hour of them facing even more obstacles, but ultimately realizing they love each other and want to fight for it to work. That’s how movies go, because by the end of it, the audience needs to have all the information they need to extrapolate how the characters’ lives are going to go once it fades to black.

But that’s not the ending Mindy and Casey get. They’re together for eight episodes, and a lot happens in those eight episodes, but most importantly, we get to see that Casey is different. Something about him has a longevity that the other characters didn’t – he’s certainly not perfect, or even perfect for Mindy. But they love each other anyway, so much that she agrees to travel to Haiti with him. Her relationship with Casey reveals a lot about Mindy and her place on the show: that she’s capable of a long-term relationship, and more importantly, that the show is capable of giving her one. We’re not going to be watching her date losers for the next seven years; we’re going to watch her fall in love, and have her heart broken, and try again, and probably have her heart broken again. We’re not going to know who he is any more than Mindy does – not even just who her soulmate is, but which guy we’re supposed to pay the most attention to. Her arc with Danny this season (and, of course, there were signs before then) makes it clear that Danny’s the one to watch, but when Mindy’s engaged to Casey, or trying to give herself a memorable day with a guy from her past, it’s not as black and white as waiting for Danny to come out of the wings. Mindy jumps in so hard and so willingly that it’s so hard to not root for every new guy who comes around, because you want Mindy to be right this time. You want her full, whole-body way of experiencing things to work out this time. And time after time after time, it doesn’t. But then, sometimes it does.

And that’s the key to romantic comedies, but then again, it also isn’t. With movies, the lines are clearly drawn. Who are the leads? Okay, they’re going to end up together. They’re together in the beginning? Okay, they’ll be together in the end. They’re not together in the beginning? Well, they’ll still be together in the end. We’ve all seen enough to know how they work, but the problem with familiarity and playing into convention is that it very quickly leads to repetition and formula. And because of that, the romantic comedy genre has fallen on some hard times. Films like When Harry Met Sally, or really any of the Meg Ryan vehicles, aren’t being made anymore, because it’s no longer interesting to watch something that treats love so simply. We don’t want to watch Kathleen Kelly immediately accepting and not caring that Joe Fox has been lying to her the entire time; we want to watch that fight, to see her emotions explored, and then, maybe, they can get together, as long as they’re both aware of the complexities of their actions.

But that’s how romcoms were. And you know what? They were great. Because they exist in this in-between space of real and not real, a space where belief in pure, idealistic emotion is rampant. And in that space, you find things you recognize: Central Park, or a woman selfishly in love with her best friend, or a romance that only exists online. But even though you recognize them, they’re not actually the things you know, or at least how you know them. Because in this space, things get resolved quickly. Not just because of the time restraints of a film, but because they don’t matter, really. The point isn’t that Joe Fox lied to Kathleen Kelly; the point is that he loves her. And that’s what defines this in-between space: love. Everyone in it, even if they don’t know it or if they claim otherwise, values love above all else. It’s why the mysterious girl next door can turn out to have a heart of gold, or why the bad boy can suddenly clean up his act to prove himself to one girl. It’s because these characters exist in our world, but if our world made it possible for people to always feel everything purely and consumingly.

And somewhere along the way, this became boring. Or just twisted by either audiences or filmmakers who didn’t fully understand why the romcoms that worked had worked so well. Or the desire to repeat success became too short-sighted – look at the differences between the pairings of Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan and Adam Sandler/Drew Barrymore or Matthew McConaughey/Kate Hudson. With the latter two, both had a great first film, one that’s generally liked by most audiences and seen as a good example of what the genre has to offer. And then they decided to team up again and, well, 50 First Dates and Fool’s Gold happened.

Another likely theory is that people stopped focusing on the “romantic” part, or on the “comedy” part. Both elements are so essential: imagine if Harry Burns acted as dull and depressing as his scripted lines would indicate. But Billy Crystal made him funny, made him a man who sees the humor in things and seeks to bring it out in his best friend Sally. Instead, romcoms became over the top, slapstick spectacles as two people tripped and hijinx’d their way to each other (see: When in Rome). Or two very serious people with very serious opinions on love and the world find each other in a very serious manner, and very seriously begin their lives together (see: like half of the couples in He’s Just Not That Into You). Or, the worst of all: one person is funny, one person is serious, and they have to change in order to find room for each other in their lives (see: Grease, Knocked Up). Narrative arcs are all about going on some sort of journey towards self-reflection or change, but the message of romcoms has become clear: the person you are is flawed, and needs to change in order to find redemption or happiness. And that’s awful.

The state of the genre has become so bad that the name of the genre itself has become a bad word. No one wants to be in a romantic comedy, because that implies terrible scripts and over-the-top acting and a completely unrealistic plot. Now, the films that more closely resemble the classics of the genre are actually films that stay far away from the label of romcom. Because back when the genre was thriving, a good romantic comedy (as any good film does) had its own voice. It had something new to say about love itself, or about the people who are going to fall in love. That’s why When Harry Met Sally is so iconic: it features different sorts of characters on a different sort of journey, with side characters who had their own ongoing plot. Or You’ve Got Mail, where Kathleen Kelly’s work life was just as important as her romantic life, if not moreso. Good romantic comedies were unique, creative, and exciting. They established, not followed, the formula that would come to kill the genre.

But in the past few years, the best romcoms are films that, while closer to some of the ‘90s classics, still aren’t the same. Because they’re doing their own thing. Look at (500) Days of Summer, which focuses on love but not the idea that love can (or should) conquer all. It focuses on how deeply love can affect your life, but unlike most films that focus on a similar topic, makes it clear that sometimes, you’re better off if the person you loved so deeply, who changed you in ways you never imagined, isn’t a part of your life. That the impetus for change can be huge, revolutionary, and temporary. It still holds up that representation of reality seen in the first movement of the genre, the one that celebrates the magical wonderment of reality. But it exists in a more realistic version of that space: one where love doesn’t always work out, one where the challenges faced by both characters are dirtier and more complex than, say, a simple misunderstanding that one character is too afraid to clarify. The romantic comedies of today aren’t defined by how much romance they contain, or how much comedy; they’re multigenre and complex. They include films like (500) Days of Summer and Silver Linings Playbook, films that, at first glance, have nothing to do with films like While You Were Sleeping or Love Actually. But they’ve come to define the romantic comedy genre in the 2000s just as strongly as Meg Ryan defined it in the ‘90s. Because, sure, films are still being made that more closely follow the standard romcom tropes and structures, and guess what? More often than not, they’re terrible. Because they just embody what other films before them have done, not their own message that they’re trying to impart. It’s only by avoiding the broad classification of being a romantic comedy that films with unique voices can be funny, successful, and endearing.

And it’s this evolution of the genre that made room for The Mindy Project and its attitude toward love. The show can momentarily turn its focus toward its supporting characters, or heavily feature storylines that have nothing to do with romance, and yet every scene feels just as fresh, exciting, and magical as the ones where a character is making a grand romantic gesture.  But even then, those grand romantic gestures are still grounded in something real.  Look at Mindy’s reaction when she finds out Danny’s been You’ve Got Mailing her – she’s horrified, just as all of their coworkers are.  But we know Mindy Lahiri loves that movie, loves Meg Ryan, and probably loves the scene in which Kathleen Kelly realizes it was Joe the whole time.  Any girl would swoon immediately if a guy reenacted one of their favorite movies for them, right?  Wrong.  Because he’s not being honest.  Because he’s taking advantage of her.  And Mindy refuses to let him get away with that.  Because Mindy Lahiri is just as strong as Danny Castellano, and she knows the difference between love in a movie and love in reality.  And that’s why The Mindy Project is able to thrive in this post-romcom state of romcoms: because Mindy, and the audience, is able to celebrate love while knowing when it’s bad for her.  But when it happens for real?  It’s going to be good.  Because the true measure of a successful romantic comedy isn’t how quickly the two leads can get together; what truly defines a romantic comedy, what makes it memorable and beloved, is feeling its spirit. Feeling that lightness, that air of possibility and promise that’s wrapped itself around every frame of every shot of every scene, and feeling like anything could happen to these people you recognize, in this world you can experience, with a feeling you can’t quite name.

So come on, everyone: let’s run to the Empire State Building at 9:15 to meet the love of our lives. Let’s go out with the cute, quirky writers sitting next to us on our flights. Let us live in a world where the dream of love, where those who love or hope for love, are celebrated for their hope and perseverance. Let’s live with Mindy Lahiri, and Kathleen Kelly, and Sally Albright, and let ourselves dream. Now come on, curl up, and put on the movie where they say, “I’ll order whatever gave her an orgasm.” You deserve it.

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