Where Does The Mindy Project Go Next?

These two.

The Mindy Project has never really seemed to have a plan. But this week’s fourth-season finale — gripping as it was as its own entity — has me wondering what on earth is next for this flawed, loved show and its flawed, loved heroine.

Early on, and in many of its best moments, The Mindy Project has taken down romantic comedy tropes with abandon. Indeed, it’s enough of a subversion of the romance genre to pair its conventions with The Mindy Project’s unconventional heroine — Mindy is brown-skinned, vain, shallow, obsessed with low culture, and projects Beyoncé-level confidence through it all. The central joke of the show has often been this: While traditional rom-coms have standard beauties like Katherine Heigl or Jennifer Aniston struggling adorably in the pursuit of love, Mindy Lahiri is busy cleaning up with conventionally cute, available leading men.

As the series has progressed, however, it’s ricocheted about: Sometimes it’s a standard-issue, A-plot/B-plot sitcom, an approach that stripped it of its zip. A large portion of the original supporting cast disappeared by the end of the first season. (Remember when Anna Camp was on this show?) The remaining supporting players, most notably fellow doctor Jeremy (played gamely by Ed Weeks), struggled to find something to do. Even Mindy’s character has displayed wild inconsistencies: One of her most admirable qualities was that she was great at her job as an OB-GYN; the first season’s lovely finale hinged on her competently delivering triplets to M.I.A.’s empowering “Bad Girls,” a moment of professional triumph amid personal uncertainty. But when she was pregnant, she often displayed a lack of basic bodily knowledge.

In some ways, The Mindy Project’s loose-canon ways played to its advantage. The throwaway lines contain multitudes, a skill rarely perfected by any show not created and produced by Tina Fey. (“I am not good at saying no, okay? One time I left a flea market with a samurai sword.”) But Mindy has always been at its best when it’s kept to the rom-com genre that inspired Mindy Kaling, its creator and leading lady. The problem: Romance and long-running television series have often been uneasy bedfellows. The “will they/won’t they” couple is a trope for a reason. Erring on the side of won’t means the show and its plot-generating conflict go on.

After going bravely for the will in season three, putting Danny and Mindy into a serious relationship with a child on the way, the fourth season swerved hard toward won’t in the fourth. A sitcom that is often cartoonishly goofy suddenly went dead serious, giving the couple problems real enough to make the stomach churn: Danny wanted Mindy to stay home with their new son, Leo, and, furthermore, to have another baby. She wanted to be able to pursue her career, which included a new fertility clinic. In their fights, Danny cruelly pointed out the flaws we love in Mindy: She’s selfish and messy and silly.

Then, this week’s finale boldly brought Danny back into the picture after making us hate him all season. He and Mindy give in to their undeniable chemistry and hook up in a stalled elevator, even though he’s engaged — unbeknownst to Mindy — and she’s in a new will-they-won’t-they with her office mate Dr. Jody Kimball-Kinney. Danny and Mindy even exchange declarations of love … before Mindy gets home to find that Jody has made the grand gesture of buying the apartment above her to make room for Leo. It was riveting because we’ve invested so much in Danny and Mindy — and because Kaling and Messina are hot like fire together.

But in the harsh light of the morning after, there’s the fact that Messina is moving to guest-star status next season, hardly a great sign for the relationship. What might that mean for the show going forward?

On the one hand, we’re back in rom-com heaven, the show’s prime territory. Its most memorable episodes have used big gestures to great effect, like when Danny and Mindy kissed on the plane, when Danny danced for her to Aaliyah’s “Try Again,” when Danny flew to India to ask Mindy’s parents for her hand in marriage. This week’s rekindling and new love-triangulating felt all the more epic because we’ve missed those moments so much, and because just a few episodes ago, the show was treading water with throwaway dates we’d never see again, trips to Princeton and Texas, and a company softball game.

Furthermore, Mindy has even started to sell me on her opposites-attract relationship with Jody, a backwards Southern jerk somehow made kind of charming by Garret Dillahunt. Having Danny around gives them a hurdle to jump as a couple — a key ingredient to a lasting sitcom romance.

On the other hand, Mindy and Jody have plenty of built-in hurdles. He’s a sexist philanderer, a good-old-days boy, the absolute opposite of Mindy. (Well, they clearly both like sex. But other than that.) Wrenching us back into the heartache of Mindy’s relationship with Danny is recklessly risky: Like Mindy, we’re likely to experience that heartache all over.

It’s hard to know whether to trust Danny — or The Mindy Project — with our hearts again. And its finale cliffhanger makes you wonder whether the show has a clear direction, an endgame, a message. I’m all for learning from mistakes in love. But what is it that Mindy is trying to teach us?

Where Does The Mindy Project Go Next?