As The Mindy Project comes to the end of its six-season run, we can finally make a clear accounting of its legacy. It propelled star and creator Mindy Kaling from supporting player on The Office to one of the first Indian-American leads on television, not to mention a creative force in her own right. It was one of the first shows to jump from a traditional network, Fox, to a streaming service, Hulu. It allowed Kaling to offer her own twist on the joke-per-second sitcom, taking it into new territory with a unique amalgamation of romantic comedy send-up, heartfelt moments, and a main character who somehow combined Liz Lemon’s professional competence with Miss Piggy’s psychotic confidence.
With all of that going on, it’s no wonder that at times The Mindy Project could feel wildly uneven. We swooned, cried, and laughed hysterically, but at other times, we wondered what happened to that other secretary in the office, or where Mindy’s latest best friend came from, or why Casey the priest became a shoe mogul, or how dreamy love interest Danny got so mean. Below, we send Mindy off with a definitive ranking of the six seasons through this ebb and flow.
6) Season 4
The season begins with a dream sequence about how Mindy’s life would be without Danny (Chris Messina), kicking off a new, solid tradition of fantasy episodes. The dream is interspersed with Danny actually meeting and hanging out with Mindy’s parents in India, and they are the real dream here, particularly Mindy’s mother. Sakina Jaffrey is perfection, playing against every Indian mom stereotype as a vain wannabe actress.
As the season progresses, Mindy struggles to balance career and motherhood, and the office gets two new additions: uptight southern gentleman doctor Jody Kimball-Kinney (Garret Dillahunt) and his lesbian sister, nurse Colette Kimball-Kinney (Fortune Feimster). They fit into the cast surprisingly well, but things take a dark turn when Danny skips town after his estranged father has a heart attack. He and Mindy start planning their wedding when he returns, but Danny’s character takes a nosedive. Mindy finds out he intentionally impregnated her without her knowledge. He continues to patronize her mothering and demands she stay home with their new son, Leo. Finally, with Danny’s adorable uptightness curdling into controlling sexism, they break up. Essentially, things get a little too real in the effort to send Messina off to other projects.
It’s a tough slog through the rest of the season, which has to rely on hit-or-miss date-of-the-week story lines: Mindy dates an Indian guy, then Mindy dates a forgettable cool guy played by Ne-Yo. Aimlessness takes over, with two trip episodes: one to visit the demoted-to-guest-star Peter (Adam Pally) and his wife in Texas, and one to Princeton, where Mindy meets a football coach she dates for a second. There’s an ill-conceived attempt at a will-they, won’t-they relationship between Mindy and Jody. Things don’t heat up again until — you guessed it — Danny returns. When he and Mindy get stuck in an elevator together overnight, we’re fine with the cliché as long as it means these two get to make out.
5) Season 5
We dispense with Danny at the beginning of the season, but Mindy’s brief reunion with him has the excellent effect of erasing the idea of Jody as a romantic partner. Alas, this quickly becomes the Season of Ben. Ben is a cute pediatric nurse whom Mindy first meets when he’s leading a strike. He’s played by the perfectly delightful Bryan Greenberg. And he even seems like the kind of guy worth settling down with: reliable, respectful, good in the kitchen. But that doesn’t make for a great TV relationship. Although these two end up married, the dynamic never has the same resonance as the Danny-Mindy pairing.
Unlike the other seasons, this one thrives on stand-alone concept episodes and quirky characters. “Leland Breakfast Is the Miracle Worker” has Jack Davenport playing “the bad boy of London theater” to grand effect, taking down every Britishism and theater-ism and comic-book movie-ism with him. Yet another new doctor, Anna, is played hilariously cold by Rebecca Rittenhouse, her face an expressionless wonder. “Mindy Lahiri Is a White Man” is a half-hour tour de force, with Mindy waking up for one day in the body of a guy — Ryan Hansen playing a Mindy surprised to find herself in his skin, with all the privileges that affords. Despite these bright spots, however, the main story lags, and so the season suffers in comparison to others.
4) Season 6
We begin the final season knowing it’s the final season, and that makes all the difference. The Ben mistake is quickly erased with a divorce. Somehow, even the craziest romantic plotlines stick their landings: Anna gives Jeremy the ending he deserves after five seasons of misfires; we believe Morgan and Tamra getting together as she softens a bit (her brief conversion to “Siberian Orthodox!”) and he gets just the tiniest bit sexier. Jody finds his match and moves to Africa, of all places. Along the way, we also get the Meryl Streep costume party we never knew we needed.
Best of all, we return to the characters that made Mindy its best: Danny and his mom (Rhea Perlman, who should be on television at all times), whose breast cancer diagnosis brings the couple back together. Mindy’s greatest quality is its ability to pull off happy endings even after the messiest journeys, and they’re so satisfying you don’t care how you got there. The finale might not be one for the ages, but it’s tear-jerky and sweet and perfect for the show Mindy was at its best. It’s a smooth, confident season that’s technically better than earlier ones, but it doesn’t have the flush of excitement working in its favor.
3) Season 3
Danny and Mindy go public with their relationship and prove that for at least a season, a will-they, won’t-they couple can remain interesting even after they’ve decided they will. We get to meet Danny’s Ma, who proves a formidable foil to Mindy. Danny and Mindy navigate being apart for several episodes when she takes a fellowship at Stanford before a big reveal: Mindy is pregnant. She also takes her career a step farther when she opens her own fertility clinic. We end with a cliff-hanger: Danny proving his commitment to Mindy by flying to India by himself to meet her parents.
We’re so invested in Danny and Mindy at this point that any minor issues — like the total confusion over what to do with Jeremy (Ed Weeks) — hardly fazes us. And yet Fox canceled the show at the end of the season, despite the exciting cliff-hanger. (Aside from our investment in the relationship, we were all dying to meet Mindy’s parents.) That, plus Hulu’s relative lack of original programming at the time, prompted the streaming service to pick up the fan favorite for another season. And the rest is history.
2) Season 1
The pilot alone is a gem, introducing us to the pathetic in love, great at her job ob-gyn named Mindy Lahiri. From the beginning, Kaling draws on that typical rom-com trope, but she tweaks it by making Mindy’s professionalism an undeniably good quality: She leaves a promising date to help a patient, and the ending sequence of her delivering a baby is set to MIA’s empowering “Bad Girls.” She doesn’t actually need a man to save her or loosen her up. She’s just an imperfect woman looking for her own romantic happy ending to go with the rest she’s accomplished.
A will-they, won’t-they develops soon with — who else? — the co-worker with whom she spars the most, Danny Castellano. He’s her exact opposite: an Italian guy from Staten Island who’s obsessed with fitness, self-control, and Billy Joel. There are the requisite other romances to delay and distract from the chemistry building between Mindy and Danny, including a wonderful two-episode When Harry Met Sally… homage guest-starring Kaling’s real-life best friend, B.J. Novak. And the season ends with Mindy taking off to Haiti with a new boyfriend, a pastor named Casey, who’s so interesting and charismatic we buy him as real competition for Danny.
It’s a season with a strong story line, but there’s a lot of early tinkering with the formula: We lose, most notably, Anna Camp as Mindy’s married mom friend, as well as doctor’s office support staffers Betsy (Zoe Jarman) and Shauna (Amanda Setton). In their stead, we pick up the more distinctive ex-con nurse Morgan Tookers (the brilliant Ike Barinholtz), the probably also ex-con deadpan receptionist Beverly (Beth Grant), and the nurse with a supermodel body Tamra (Xosha Roquemore). They bring the season’s wacky factor up by about 1,000, and the show soon finds its voice.
1) Season 2
A lot of hijinks kick off this season, including a guest stint from James Franco as a fellow doctor who briefly joins the practice and pastor Casey’s journey from priest to DJ to athletic-shoe mogul. A better development comes in the form of Adam Pally’s Peter, a new doctor who sticks with the practice for a while and becomes an oddly perfect confidante for Mindy. (In his party-bro-ness, Peter is fun, nonjudgmental, and supportive.)
Tensions and sparks flare between Mindy and Danny as he wraps things up with his surprisingly cool ex-wife, Christina (Chloë Sevigny), while Mindy pursues lawyer Cliff (Glenn Howerton). They downright explode when Danny, as Mindy’s Secret Santa in the office, gifts her with a seriously good private-dance performance to Aaliyah’s “Try Again.” It’s no wonder that a few episodes later, the two engage in one of TV’s hottest first kisses on an airplane flying back from a work trip to Los Angeles. Danny throws a wrench into their budding relationship by asking to keep it secret, which prompts a brief fling between Mindy and, essentially, an older version of Danny — a stern police officer played by Tim Daly. Lucky for us, that doesn’t last for long.
Most of the crazy detours still feel in service to the plot, and the central romance is at its height. The end result? The Mindy Project at its finest.