If Friends taught us one thing, it's that characters need to date very slowly.
Last night, The Mindy Project's Season 2 finale pretty much had a picture-perfect ending (some spoilers ahead for anyone not familiar with rom-com plots). Coworkers Mindy and Danny, who admitted their feelings to one another earlier this season, find themselves at the top of the Empire State Building, wrapped in each other's arms, declaring their undying love, and sparring over how many future children Mindy will bear. For someone who is a rabid fan of Mindy Kaling's punchy and culturally fluent witticisms and Chris Messina's charming curmudgeonly ways, this was a wildly satisfying ending. Mindy had received her When Harry Met Sally Hollywood rom-com ending she had pined for since the pilot. It had finally happened! Only, saying that it "finally happened" is a misnomer, because this is only the second season of The Mindy Project.
The Mindy Project has fallen into what I'd like to call the fast-forward hole, a plot trap that seems to be plaguing a few network sitcom writers, borne out of a need to deliver happy endings at warped speed. Current TV sitcoms like Mindy and New Girl focus on a new breed of modern single women who seem to have all their ducks in a row — a bustling career, a luxurious and overly spacious apartment, a loyal group of hilarious friends — all except for the perfect man.
This illusion (or reality, depending on the show), of "having it all" was first built in the '70s with shows like The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Murphy Brown, which were really pioneers for sitcoms that featured successful and powerful ladies who also happened to not have their dating lives on lock. In more recent decades, the trope has grown into a wealth of rich female characters: Ally McBeal, Caroline Duffy, Grace Adler, Veronica Chase, and even Liz Lemon. These shows and characters sustained themselves over multiple season runs because the women had busy careers, had a rotating cast of dates, had complicated friendships, and, if we're honest, were supported by excellent ensemble casts filled with diversions. But The Mindy Project and New Girl, which are really the most rom-commy sitcoms in current existence, have jettisoned seasons of bad dates and career follies and replaced them with a swift resolution of the main character's unresolved sexual tensions — that secret spice of the sitcom — all too quickly.
It's the opposite problem that nine dragged-out seasons of How I Met Your Mother suffered from — Mindy and New Girl have speedily matched together the two most compelling characters on their shows. These arcs are a loose graft of two different kinds of plots: the purely episodic dating show and the long-term relationship show. In response to Season 2's perfect ending, Mindy Kaling told Vulture that she didn't think the grand gesture of love was too quick, "Danny says he loves Mindy because, well, after looking back at the season, and all of his gestures and longing, it just felt like that's all it could be…People responded so well to them dating, and hated when they broke up, which was also very encouraging." Kaling notes that she can bring in the character's exes for comedic fodder, but it's unclear if a show which has mainly succeeded due to the strength of its dialogue and guest appearances can push past such an epic fast-forward hole.
New Girl, which paired off its couple after 39 22-minute episodes, might be pulling back from the central Nick and Jess relationship next season, realizing the rush was a writing error. As Nick and Jess break up at the end of this season, it also felt like the show had expended its plot. "I think this year we got a little heavy, we got a little into that emotional arc, and I think this show completely exists without all that heaviness,” Liz Meriwether, creator of New Girl, told Vulture last month.“We’re having a chance to get back to basics and sort of reset the show, and kind of go back to the dynamics of the first season and the pilot, where it’s just this group of friends who are having fun…I think it might actually be good for the show to return to the kind of fun of it.”
Sitcoms needs that kind of light, episodic fun to prosper. There's a reason the "will they or won't they" trope exists in almost all comedies of the last few decades: Sex and the City, Frasier, Friends, Gilmore Girls, Scrubs, and of course, The Office were all driving towards something. As TV Tropes explains, "it is difficult for shows to recover from the loss of a major source of dramatic tension represented by an unrequited relationship." Which is why most settle for a last-minute hookup, a surefire way to avoid a narrative bed death and a lost audience.
The masters of this were the creators of Friends, who waited a full 100 episodes before introducing the Monica-Chandler romance, which was arguably more surprising and complicated than the show's main Ross-Rachel break-up and make-up plot. The idea had been kicking around since an early Season 2 episode, but was put on hold in the writer's room for pacing purposes. "It became clear it was too early to explore something like that. There was a little bit of relationship ennui among us writers," executive producer Scott Silveri says. "We'd already done a lot of drama between Ross and Rachel. And nobody wanted it to become the 'Get Together and Break-up' show.'" Spinning two central romances proved a genius move — if one sunk, the other would float. If you weren't a fan of nebbish Ross, then you might be a fan of sarcastic Chandler.
The Mindy Project's show is too Mindy-oriented and the supporting cast too tangential for two central romances to spring from it. Part of this rushed Mindy-Danny closure might be that TV ratings are down and a lot of showrunners might feel on the brink of cancellation. Mindy Kaling, a woman of color who created, stars in, and executive producers her own series, was most likely a precarious choice for FOX execs. The writers of Mindy and shows like it want to live out their plots before they see their shows close up shop. They don't want to fall prey to similar Freaks and Geeks, My-So Called Life, or Don't Trust the B— In Apartment 23 narrative blue balls. But rushing a romance also means erasing the shelf life of the show.
If I was already hand-delivered the perfect ending I wanted — Danny Castellano professing his love for Mindy Lahiri atop a New York landmark, Nick Miller grabbing Jessica Day for a hallway make-out — what's to keep me watching the next season? A show can't succeed if it follows its heart as quickly and haphazardly as actual people do — it needs measured steps, it needs pitfalls, it needs cheesy side plots in which the main character gets a bad haircut or a new job. Single girl sitcoms, I would argue, can't do without the secret spice. And Morgan Tookers isn't it.
Image via Fox.