Last year, Mindy Kaling was asked whether The Mindy Project would ever tackle abortion. At first, Kaling gave a categorical no, saying it would be “demeaning” to the topic for a sitcom to take it on. But seemingly chastened by the public’s incredulous response, she later revised her answer, telling Stephen Colbert, “We haven’t found a hilarious take on abortion … yet—but we might. I have faith in us.”
And now Mindy Lahiri is pregnant. As if to telegraph to its audience “yes, we’re really doing this,” this week’s episode of The Mindy Project opened with Mindy Lahiri lamenting that she had taken 30 pregnancy tests, and all but one had come out positive. (And the only negative turned out to be a popsicle stick on which she’d scrawled a minus symbol.)
The really-and-truly-pregnant message needed underscoring because we’ve all seen TV before—no one actually expects Mindy to have a baby. As a trope, the unplanned-pregnancy plotline can be irksome because it so often seems clumsily contrived to raise a show’s stakes. More often than not it signals that the writers have written themselves into a corner that they will quickly have to escape via a loop-de-loop that eventually leaves us exactly where we started. Does the show feature a relationship that’s sailing along smoothly, with no obstacles or cliffhangers in sight? Boom, let’s throw a pregnancy into the mix to shake things up. Here, the smooth-sailing relationship in question belongs to Mindy and Danny Castellano, the loveably gruff fellow doctor with whom she’s shared will-they-or-won’t-they chemistry since the show’s pilot.
Before Tuesday’s episode confirmed the pregnancy, we could still hold out hope for a fake-out or some sort of wacky switched-test-results scenario. Now the plot options have dwindled to convenient miscarriage, abortion—an area TV and movies frequently deem a no-go zone—or going through with the pregnancy, none of which seem like promising storyline directions.
As for actually having the baby, it could completely change the nature of the show—from dating and parties to sleep-training and exhaustion. And if the show didn’t change much, that would be a problem too, because babies do change things. So it’s possible that Kaling and her writers’ “hilarious take” on abortion is now upon us, though the tone of the most recent episode makes this hard to imagine. When Danny finally found out about the pregnancy toward the end of the episode, Beyoncé’s “XO” swelled as he searched the city high and low to find and comfort Mindy. He told her that they "were a family" now. Earlier in the episode, Mindy had voice-overed that Danny believed in Catholicism with the fervor of Antonin Scalia. An abortion plotline that manages to resolve all of this while being uproariously funny would be quite a feat.
Critics, including Slate’s Amanda Marcotte, have argued that the show—set in an OBGYN’s office—has a responsibility to depict abortion, an important part of gynecological care. But the show’s decision to paste in a plot line that seems like a direct retort to her critics—Kaling accepting the challenge to find a hilarious take on a very real issue for women—feels like a misreading of what exactly makes this show so good. The Mindy Project may be set in an OBGYN’s office, but the medical procedures are little more than atmospherics for the high drama of office gossip and workplace flirtations. So this is why the pregnancy plot is a frustrating prospect: the charm of The Mindy Project is that it so confidently embraces its low stakes.