‘The Mindy Project’: A Day Out

The Mindy Project has made some midseason changes, and the results are charming. In addition to writing Shauna out, the show has retailored Mindy’s (Mindy Kaling) hopeless quest for true love to resemble even more a Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan romcom.

In “The One That Got Away,” airing 26 February, guest star Seth Rogen plays Sam, Mindy’s “first kiss.” (Back when they were both 13 years old, they attended Jewish summer camp together, and he helped her fit in as a non-Jewish kid by joking around.) They reconnect on Facebook (apparently everyone’s second act after a childhood meet-cute in the Berkshires) and share a whirlwind New York City day that renews Mindy’s faith in romance. And Tom Hanks movies.

The episode presents the couple in a way that allows Mindy, an accomplished doctor, to be smart and fully herself in a relationship with a man. Disappointed that her experience doesn’t resemble her favorite movies or even Sex and the City, Mindy indulges in ridiculous attempts at relationships, only to turn up the good-natured butt of the joke. This episode instead delivers her ideal guy.

For one thing, Sam is sweet and kind, and shares Mindy’s sense of humor. It helps too that he’s a perfect one-day date, a soldier due to ship out tomorrow. As he and Mindy pursue as many items on their dating bucket list as they can, the plot draws from a few other montagey romantic comedies: they go to a Nora Ephron double feature (so that we can see a bit of You’ve Got Mail) and she goes with him when he gets tattoos. At the end of their day, even though Mindy tries her best to find a loophole to keep Sam around longer, they both know he’s got to go back to do work he believes in, just like she believes in hers. Of course he quotes from You’ve Got Mail in his goodbye letter.

This plotline underscores what can be great about romantic comedies, what we tend to forget because so many of them are not great. Mindy and Sam share a fun, life-affirming ride, initiated by Mindy’s opening voiceover: “Even under extraordinary circumstances, the right two people can end up together.” It might sound like another fantasy, as she recalls her childhood flirtation and imagines a happy ending.

But the lesson she learns here is not the obvious one, say, her fantasy is false. Instead, the episode turns into a commentary on such romcom fantasies. While she may still dream of Sam after he leaves, Mindy will be left with Danny (Chris Messina), her colleague and daily companion. They couldn’t be more different, she effervescent and in love with pop culture and he curmudgeonly and too serious. Now their longtime will-they-or-won’t they? relationship, a mix of sharp banter and assorted tensions, looks just a little different.

Even in the midst of her day out, she stops what she’s doing to save Danny from a scrape. As he watches her with Sam, Danny wants her to be happy. At the same time, their bond isn’t romanticized. They irritate each other, they bail each other out and brush it off. But their maps of the world are completely different: “Sometimes I feel like you have never even seen Sex and the City,” she tells him.

In their relationship, the episode delivers a gentle corrective to romantic comedy as a genre, as they reflect what a real life budding romance might look like, as well as what good friends might do for one another. When Sam leaves, Danny is sad for Mindy, even when she explains, “It’s fine. We had a great day together. It is what it is.” To cheer her up, Danny offers to get Mindy some food from the hospital vending machine. In their pointless, witty banter about what food to get, we see the encapsulation of their unspoken romance. He shows how well he knows her (or at least what food she’d want) and she shows off her knowledge of trivia, noting what each kind of food would signify about one’s taste. And so their quotidian love lingers, beyond the grand kismet of the romcom.

RATING 8 / 10