TV

Mindy Kaling and the revitalization of the romantic comedy

Beth Grant, Zoe Jarman, Ike Barinholtz, Mindy Kaling, Ed Weeks and Chris Messina star in “The Mindy Project,” which is being resurrected on Hulu.
Beth Grant, Zoe Jarman, Ike Barinholtz, Mindy Kaling, Ed Weeks and Chris Messina star in “The Mindy Project,” which is being resurrected on Hulu. Fox

Hulu, which snagged “The Mindy Project” after Fox canceled it earlier this year, brought the show to the Television Critics Association press tour Sunday. I took the opportunity to ask series creator and showrunner Mindy Kaling a question that’s been on my mind for a while, and that’s particularly pressing in a television context, where a story doesn’t wrap up in 90 minutes: What happens to a romantic comedy after the main characters get together, decide to stay together and even have a baby?

“I’ll say that the best romantic comedies are the ones with characters. And if the characters aren’t good when the characters get together, it’s not going to be interesting, because all you’re following is plot,” she said.

“And what I have noticed in, I guess, spoiler, like my character (Dr. Mindy Lahiri) had to give birth with (Chris Messina’s Danny Castellano) there, and their approaches to even that is that if they’re good enough and you can have characters grow old together, have grandchildren, do so many things, get married, get divorced, and it will be interesting. And so I love romantic comedies. But I like good characters better.”

It was a good answer, and it’s also an excellent diagnosis for what went wrong with romantic comedies after 2005, when the genre embraced increasingly ludicrous premises to explain why its characters wouldn’t get together until the final moments of a film. Kaling’s response also explains how romantic comedies are finding their way back on screens big and small by emphasizing not the challenge of finding a perfect mate, but all the drama that follows once you’ve found someone terrific and have to do all the hard work of finding out how to build a life together.

This was one of the great gifts of Amy Schumer’s “Trainwreck.” In that film, Amy (Schumer) and Aaron (Bill Hader) meet relatively early, go to bed relatively early and become a couple fairly naturally and quickly. The comedy that follows is rooted in the compromises – Aaron craves commitment, while Amy shares her father’s (Colin Quinn) skepticism of monogamy – the couple reach as they try to make their relationship work.

The movie reaches its dramatic climax not over the question of whether Amy and Aaron will get together, but whether they can stay together despite their different styles and life experiences. Seeing these two characters we’ve come to care for and the relationship we have invested in reach a point of danger is a great way for a romantic comedy to increase the stakes of storytelling without resorting to leaving bodies on the floor.

The same is true of FX’s outstanding romantic comedy “You’re The Worst,” which followed a similar arc to “Trainwreck” in its first season: Jimmy (Chris Geere) and Gretchen (Aya Cash) hooked up at a wedding, only to find that they wanted their encounter to be something other than a one-night stand. Both of them have personality characteristics that make relationships difficult. Jimmy has a tendency toward cruelty that he defends as a sort of radical honesty, while Gretchen is a habitual liar to the point that her core personality is rather undeveloped.

But it’s possible to root for these ostensibly terrible people because of how hard they’re working on themselves and for each other. “You’re the Worst” is simultaneously emotionally risky and tremendously gratifying.

Amazon’s “Catastrophe” jumps even further and faster ahead than any of the stories I’ve mentioned here: American Rob (Rob Delaney) gets Sharon (Sharon Hogan) pregnant during a weekend trip to the U.K., and they try to make a go of it, all from the first episode. It’s a blunt and charming rejection of the canard that marriages and babies bog down sitcoms.

Television is leading movies in any number of areas right now: with increasingly great roles for women and people of color; ambitious cinematography; and rich, complex storytelling about topics ranging from the prison experience to the survival of Israel. And while the revitalization of the romantic comedy may not be as pressing an issue as the diversification of a woefully monochrome media or telling urgent stories to new audiences, it’s a delight to see television making an assertive, mature statement that building a relationship is the real adventure.

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