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The Mindy Project Recap: Script Doctoring

THE MINDY PROJECT: Danny (Chris Messina, L) helps Mindy (Mindy Kaling, R) assemble bunk beds in the "Bunk Bed" episode of THE MINDY PROJECT airing Tuesday, Jan. 15 (9:30-10:00 PM ET/PT)

This felt like a throwback episode for our fledgling Mindy Project, which my Internet detective work indicates it likely was. (The production code number places its inception before Thanksgiving, even though it’s not running until now, at least according to Wikipedia.) The hallmarks of earlier episodes reappeared: Mindy’s introductory voice-over, opining about her carriage-ride date feeling like an HBO adaptation of an Edith Wharton novel, evoked a nostalgia for four long months ago when Mindy was new and unequivocally promising. Usually voice-over lends little more than an irksome quality (see: Grey’s Anatomy) to any given production, but Mindy’s sly skewering of romantic-comedy tropes made it okay. And her trick of always cutting to her character actually waxing philosophical like a rom-com heroine — making the seeming voice-over into just dialogue — works perfectly for this show.

Or at least it did, when this show seemed to know where it was going, before its structure and characters started shuffling from week to week.

Nonetheless, this time-traveling effect gives us a way to check in on what’s working and what’s not now that we’re eleven episodes in. Herewith, some humble, loving suggestions and thoughts on the show’s major elements:

Love Interests
Who was the tool in the carriage who was not Josh? I’m still having breakup anxiety from Christmas; I understand that Mindy couldn’t be, since ostensibly she didn’t know in this script that that would (did) happen. (Time travel is confusing.) But I’m hankering for some closure there. Hope for next week: The episode is titled “Hooking Up Is Hard,” perhaps a reference to getting out there again. However, Evan, as this dude was apparently called, did provide for a lovely opening scene that once again deflated Mindy’s soaring romantic expectations. The horse carrying them on their Wharton-esque gallop about town, Peanut Butter, keeled over mid-ride. And Mindy got a nice line when Evan suggested she do something because she’s a doctor: “I’m a gynecologist. Why don’t you web-design it back to life?”

Verdict: If there’s an upshot to losing Josh, it’s that we can return to Mindy’s wonderfully disastrous dates. Surely there are more romantic comedies to make fun of.

Gwen
I adore Anna Camp as Gwen, I like Mindy having a best friend outside the office, and I enjoy the very real conflict Mindy faces as a single girl with a friend who’s now a married mom. This episode played that out in full as Mindy invited Gwen to spend the night in the city at her apartment without realizing that Gwen’s 7-year-old daughter, Riley, would obviously come, too. Riley demanded a bunk bed, which Mindy could easily supply, like a good godmother: “I can do anything, as long as it’s just paying for something.” If you are a single woman with a solid career who has a best friend with a kid, you know this sums up the entire situation.

Same goes for the part where you struggle to put together a bunk bed, call on two different guy friends to do it, and end up smashing your best friend when it falls on her. And where you say, “This house is not equipped for kids. I eat cereal out of wine glasses.” Mindy even made Riley fun, which seemed like a chore. When Gwen left for the hospital and Riley whined about missing her, Mindy reasoned with her like an adult: “That’s irrational because she’s barely been gone.” She tried to get her to watch Ken Burns’s Dust Bowl documentary to no avail. But this adult approach worked later when she told a fairly grown-up story about how she and Gwen became friends after fighting over a guy in college (“a white guy with dreadlocks … very hard look to pull off”). Riley got it, and so did Mindy. They drew up an itinerary for the next day together, involving both looking at koalas at the zoo and allowing Riley to try on Mindy’s bras.

Verdict: Camp is downgrading to a recurring cast member, which is a shame. I’d happily sign up for more of Gwen and less of those millions of other characters at the office. Gwen is the kind of character who can actually lend a little meaning to this entire enterprise, which seems to be about a young, single woman reconciling her career badassery and lack of relationship skills. Not a new concept, but it's hilariously executed here at times. Focusing on the workplace just makes this a funny doctor show, and we already enjoyed Scrubs.

The Office Folk
At least they were integrated nicely into the plot this week, with Danny shuttling between playing office tyrant (“No more Facebooks!”) and helping Mindy with the bunk bed. This meant that while he was gone, Morgan, Shauna, and Betsy could nose around his desk and find the letter he wrote to his wife but did not send. We can get into more about the good and bad of that letter in a second. But for now, let’s just say that these ancillary characters often seem a little lost when Mindy’s not around. We simply don’t need them all.

Verdict: Let’s keep Morgan — he’s not always hilarious, but he’s unpredictable, fun to watch, and when he’s funny, he’s very funny. Shauna is, in fact, on her way out, which is a good thing; maybe that’ll improve Betsy’s lot, but right now I’m inclined to lose her as well. And by the way, did anyone miss poor, British Dr. Jeremy in this episode? Alas, I did not.

Danny
He gets his own special section because he’s among Mindy’s most complicated issues. Salon’s Willa Paskin named him among her top-ten scene-killers, calling him a “stridently unlikable character.” I agree, though I think we’re supposed to dislike him. Mindy’s distaste for him fuels their tension in a classic romantic-comedy way.

And their disagreements allow for some wonderful banter; Chris Messina appears to be one of the few who can match Mindy Kaling full-throttle. She gets most of the good zingers, but they’re both better together than they are apart. Their first clash in this episode produced some of the best lines: Mindy responding to his request to listen to something “masculine” while building the bunk bed by offering “Alan Cumming reading the audio book of The Lovely Bones. (Would that it were true, though you can get him reading About a Boy, among other things.) Mindy doing that great thing she does where she flips her tone from combative to sweet and then back again mid-argument: “Brothers raising brothers? That is so Catholic, Danny. I’m sorry. Is that offensive to say?” The bit they did later, when she attempted her imitation of “Charles Brando,” sparked like nothing else in the half-hour.

Oh, God, that letter, though. In it, we learned — sigh — that Danny had found his wife in bed with another man and thus could never love again. He literally said all of this in the letter, which the secretaries and Morgan read aloud. It sounded like it came straight from the factory where they print prop letters meant to indicate that someone who’s a jerk is really soft inside but has hardened his shell to … Ugh. The shame of it is that we could’ve guessed all this from the way he’s acted; we didn’t need this on-the-nose exposition.

Only one thing came close to redeeming this plot strand: Morgan mailing the letter, then covering his tracks by claiming the office had a “mailer” who broke into offices and mailed un-mailed items. “Now I’m getting Wired. What do I know about computers?” Oh, and I liked the cute texts Shauna, Betsy, and Morgan sent Danny while he was randomly flirting at the hospital with Girls’ Allison Williams, who was wearing an eye patch. But seriously, we could’ve lived without the letter. And is it ever going to come back as a plot with real consequences?

Verdict: Keep Danny interacting with Mindy as much as possible. He becomes likable when he’s with her — and if that isn’t a formula for a great eventual romance, I don’t know what is.

There’s no doubt that Mindy’s a spectacular heroine. Now she just needs a show that consistently lives up to her.

If you want to talk more Mindy, follow me on Twitter @jmkarmstrong.

Photo: Patrick Wymore/FOX