A Romantic Return for “The Mindy Project”

Mindy Kaling's quirky rom-com sitcom kicks off its pivotal third season Tuesday.

The most recent season of "The Mindy Project" ended on a high point: the observation deck of the Empire State Building.

That's where Mindy Kaling's lovelorn Dr. Mindy Lahiri character romantically relinked with her fellow OB/GYN, verbal sparring partner and soul mate Danny Castellano in a scene straight out of 1993's "Sleepless in Seattle" (which lovingly borrowed the meeting place from 1957’s "An Affair to Remember).

The episode – and the series – aren’t as much a derivative of the Nora Ephron playbook than a clever homage, as Kaling vies to reinvent the rom-com for today's TV audiences, favoring her hero's sardonic wit over vapid cutesy-ness. (As Mindy told then-platonic pal Danny in Season 1, "If we’re still single in five years…can we make a pact [that] we will kill each other?")

This TV season brings a flood of new romantic comedies – "Marry Me," "Manhattan Love Story," “Selfie,” “A to Z” – in the wake of the end of "How I Met Your Mother." But "The Mindy Project" returns Tuesday for a pivotal third season, already ahead of the pack.

Not that anything for the show, echoing Mindy Lahiri’s love life, has been easy: While “The Mindy Project” has earned a devoted following judging from Internet chatter, it’s far from a breakout smash, judging from the ratings (the program averaged about 3.4 million viewers last season). Kaling got up at an ungodly hour to announce the Emmy nominations in July, but her show got shut out – a snub her fiery and insecure character wouldn't have taken as gracefully. 

The bigger challenge for “The Mindy Project” is where does the smart-and-quirky Fox sitcom go from here, now that Mindy and Danny are an item, seemingly for good. It’s a set-up worthy of “Cheers,” where Sam and Diane’s explosive coupling didn’t end happily ever after for the characters, though happily for the show's longevity.

Nobody is ready yet to declare “The Mindy Project” the next “Cheers.” But even flattering surface comparisons are due to Kaling’s shrewd picking of role models, beyond Ephron. Kaling, who described growing up as a comedy nerd in her fun book “Is Everybody Hanging Out Without Me?,” also adds dashes of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “30 Rock” to her “Project.” (Mindy’s declaration of her right to “life, liberty and chicken wings” could have flowed from the lips of Rhoda Morgenstern or Liz Lemon.)

Kaling knows well from her stint on “The Office” as a writer and actress the value of a strong ensemble in a workplace comedy. She’s assembled a great set of characters  – Ike Barinholtz’s bizarre, good-hearted ex-con nurse Morgan Tookers is a standout. She’s also deftly juggled guest stars – among them Seth Rogen, B.J. Novak and Seth Meyers – amid a long line of Mindy boyfriends, ranging from a philandering sports agent to a minister with musical aspirations. 

Mindy’s combustible chemistry this season with Danny (Chris Messina) will help determine whether next year Kaling gets to stay home and sleep – or watch from the Empire State Building – while someone else announces Emmy nods for "The Mindy Project.” In the meantime, check out a Season 2 recap: 

Jere Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.

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