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Danny makes a subtle, touching return on The Mindy Project

Illustration for article titled Danny makes a subtle, touching return on The Mindy Project
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In “Leo’s Girlfriend,” The Mindy Project skewers the world of progressive private New York preschools, and right away, the material feels a little played out. But the episode also brings back Danny Castellano, providing a few strong, genuine character moments that anchor the episode and reach back into the characters’ histories for some compelling emotional storytelling.

Like millennial culture or hipsters, fancy preschools are a common target for television comedies, especially ones that take place in New York. Some of the jokes about Leo’s school are just played out, like the bits about allergies and multiculturalism. Julie Bowen, at least, is a perfect casting for the role of Daisy Anderson, an uptight, blonde mom who kills with (fake) kindness and harshly judges Mindy for never spending any time at the preschool. But the character dwells in the shadow of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s Deirdre Robespierre, television’s greatest stuffy mean mom, played by Anna Camp. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt gets the New York private school parody right by going extremely over-the-top with it. Tonally, that wouldn’t really fit with The Mindy Project’s voice, but the jokes that do land in “Leo’s Girlfriend” are the ones that are wildly specific, like the fact that the many emails sent to the parents included one in remembrance of August Wilson (“Fences changed my life” is one of the funniest lines of the episode). There aren’t enough of those specifics to really flesh out the show’s portrayal of Leo’s school, so much of the humor is just predictable and flat.

Chris Messina doesn’t make some grand re-entrance to The Mindy Project, and it’s better that way. Danny simply shows up to take Leo to school one morning, and it’s almost like he hasn’t been a ghost on the show for so long. Mindy and Danny both give each other shit for their divorces, reminding each other of their failed romantic histories without really talking about their own (until they do, and then it’s awkward). The Mindy Project nails its depiction of two exes bound together by their kid in these Danny and Mindy scenes. There’s both ease and tension between them, a comfort and willingness to work together for the sake of Leo but still the need to nitpick each other’s flaws and mock each other.

Again, the Tamra and Morgan storyline this season just isn’t really clicking. The redundancy of their arc together (which is really more like a circle) has some cogency to it: The cycle of repeatedly hooking up and ending things with one particular ex that you can’t seem to quite shake is a very real situation, and anyone who has been there can understand Tamra’s frustration with herself. But The Mindy Project seems to be selling Tamra and Morgan’s pull toward each other as romantic, and that’s where it just gets tough to swallow. Morgan crosses the line too many times in his courting of Tamra. His aggressive judgements and questions during her meeting with Mindy and a “spermmolier” (okay, that portmanteau got me) are just completely inappropriate, making him seem like a creepy stalker all over again. When Tamra learns she’s already pregnant on the day of her insemination, she decides not to tell Morgan. Of course, he makes up for his previously possessive behavior by presenting her with flowers and telling her she’s going to be a great mother...every time Morgan’s behaviors start to cross a line, the writers try very hard to make it clear that he’s a good guy, and that back-and-forth has become tiring. At least their storyline in the episode ends on an unexpected, intriguing note. Just when it looks like Tamra’s about to confess to Morgan that he’s the father, she decides against it. The Mindy Project is at its best when working against rom-com conventions, and this is a stark example of that.

Mindy’s central storyline also ends on a touching—if heavy-handed—note. After Mindy and Daisy’s mompetition reaches a violent climax, Mindy and Danny have to meet with the president of the school, who criticizes Mindy’s lack of involvement. All episode, characters judge Mindy’s absence from the school, and to be fair, she doesn’t know where the school is or what time the kids get picked up. But she’s a working mom, damnit. And she’s there for Leo in other ways, like singing the entirety of Taylor Swift’s Red album to him before bed. The episode’s conclusion that working moms can be just as there for their children as stay-at-home moms isn’t exactly novel or revolutionary. But what makes the end of this storyline strong is the fact that Mindy’s defense comes from Danny. He’s the one who points out all the ways she’s a good mom, and it makes for one of the most sincere Mindy/Danny scenes we’ve seen in awhile.

And again, The Mindy Project works against rom-com conventions by not letting Danny’s grand speech about Mindy turn into a re-opened door for their romance. Rather, in the final scene, he brings her pizza (a small nod to how well he knows her), and the two finally commiserate about going through divorces instead of just deriding each other for failed marriages. As the shot pulls back on them eating together in Mindy’s apartment, the sentiment isn’t romantic but rather just warm with a touch of sadness, reminding how easily they fit together even though they couldn’t make things work romantically. Even though we haven’t seen Chris Messina in a while, Danny has continued to be a part of Mindy’s life, so it makes sense that his return would be quiet, normal. All the pieces of “Leo’s Girlfriend” don’t quite come together, but through Mindy and Danny’s interactions, the show continues to thrive at depicting complex ex relations that rom-coms rarely engage with.


Stray observations

  • Tamra wants her child to have telekinesis.
  • Morgan’s dogs remain my favorite characters on this show.
  • Poor Jeremy and those beautiful merengues he made.
  • Mindy Kaling’s breathless delivery of “oh my god, she’s perfect, she blocked me on Twitter” is great.