The Mindy Project: The Character Who Doesn’t Learn

As I was trying to think of which shows and movies to cover with the topic of Groundhog Day premise, I was actively trying to avoid Community‘s infamous multiple timeline episode, but watching this episode of The Mindy Project actually convinced me that I’ll have to do it for next week. One of the reasons is because when Community swapped showrunners, a few of the writers from the show went over to The Mindy Project, and they’ve done interviews talking about how Mindy Kaling, who was also the creator of the show in addition to star, basically “outlawed” discussing “story circles” in the writers’ room. Watching this later episode of the series (which may or may not have had those same writers in the room), I couldn’t help but think about if the approach to the episode would have changed by breaking down the episode a different way.

If you’ve been on this blog before, then you know that I am a firm believer that all screenwriting structure is the same. Sitcom structure used to be broken into two acts (act one = set up, act two = punchline, much like a single joke’s structure). Act breaks were basically synonymous with where the commercials were placed, so over the years as commercial breaks were added, it became more clear that the structure (which really didn’t change) was very traditional. The set up still had a moment where you set up the premise for the episode (inciting incident) and a moment where the protagonist states their goal/mission (first act decision). Half way into the episode, something will happen that turns the plot in a different direction, and there will always be a moment where it all falls apart. I will say, often times the big moment in the comedy isn’t the climax, but the false climax. Because people like to laugh at pain and a well-written low point is pure pain.

All of these same moment’s exist in Dan Harmon’s story circle, but the point of the circle is to look more thoroughly at the structure through the lens of the character’s growth, while still keeping their emotional journey small because a television protagonist’s emotional journey has to stretch over seasons. When I looked at this episode of The Mindy Project (which is incredibly fun!), I was curious if they felt that the character had changed enough, or if at all. Mindy’s emotional journey is to be less self-centered, as Ben tells her. But that’s a journey over the course of the whole series! She can’t walk out of her Groundhog Day life being completely self-less. And, of course she has self-less and caring moments throughout the show, but it was interesting to consider if there were moments where the journey was sacrificed for a joke. Particularly with Morgan.

In the episode “Hot Mess Time Machine”, Morgan tells Mindy she’s not self-centered and begins to state evidence but Mindy cuts him off. So it’s confirmed to the audience that Mindy is still self-centered. At the end of the episode, she is on the phone with him and she cuts him off again as he’s about to go and do some crazy things because he believes that day will reset. When it doesn’t, he’s in trouble. It’s great and hilarious, but it adds to the idea that Mindy hasn’t changed. If she hasn’t changed, then why did the day switch from Wednesday to Thursday finally?

The answer simply, is that the loop was purely about Ben, and not Mindy overall. But it’s hard to believe that Mindy is truly changed at a more visible level with Ben when she hasn’t also changed (at least a little bit) with Morgan. It’s a very small detail, and one that does not ruin a show that is premised around Mindy’s self-centered perspective, but it’s something to consider if this is a premise you’re trying to play with. And also when writing any comedy where you want there to be tangible growth. The fine line between the laugh and the story is one every half hour has to figure out. While I like that this one ends the loop before she gets the happy ending, I’m curious if the writers knowingly undermined the journey or just wanted the joke.

Before the breakdown, here are the links to the other posts in this series:

Xena: Warrior Princess, “Been There, Done That”
Palm Springs
Edge of Tomorrow

The Breakdown

“Hot Mess Time Machine”
Season 5, Episode 8

Protagonist: Mindy
Want: End the loop
Need: Stop being selfish

Antagonist: Ben
Extra-Personal Antagonist: The Loop

Teaser: Mindy Lahiri has a terrible morning. She drowns her phone in a soda cup, starts her period, has no period products in sight, and is insulted by a morning show how.

Pre-Existing Life: When she goes to work, everyone is equally rude to her (sneezed on, stabbed, mocked, etc.) and they quickly realize that Mindy’s boyfriend, Ben, broke up with her the night before. They give her a hard time while remind her how great Ben is. She goes about the rest of her horrible day, including a run in with Ben, who tells her off.

Inciting Incident: Mindy wakes up to the day repeating and is confused. She tells Morgan, who is unconcerned. Then runs into Ben, who burns her again but this time she’s less affected by it.

Plot Push / Decision: The day repeats and Mindy walks into every scene screaming. The day repeats again, and Mindy walks into every scene cursing in frustration. She tells Morgan again and though he suggests she try changing, she decides to have fun.

Reversal: In fur coat, sunglasses, and complete casual attitude, Mindy “conquers” the repeat day sequence. She impresses everyone around her, learns to shoot a free throw, raids a vending machine, sleeps with the hippie gynecologist. But after all of this, Mindy does not feel fulfilled.

Midpoint: Morgan suggest to Mindy that she needs to use the time to get Ben back. She tries several times to convince him to go to coffee with her, but he consistently rejects her and calls her selfish.

Reversal #2: Morgan tells Mindy to try “listening” to Ben. She does and Ben is impressed, so Mindy tries to learn all the things that Ben is into. Eventually, she tries to seduce Ben through nerd knowledge and cosplay. He’s into it, but still gets on a flight thanks to Mindy’s reminding him.

False Climax / Low Point: Mindy brags to Morgan on the phone and Morgan is excited to test out “no repercussions”, but Mindy hangs up on him without listening. She goes to sleep, planning to successfully win Ben over the next day, but when she wakes up it’s Thursday so Ben is still gone.

Plot Push / Third Act Decision: Mindy resolves to move on from Ben since he got on the flight and sits down to enjoy a big meal at home by herself.

Climax: Ben shows up to Mindy’s apartment. Mindy apologizes for how she treated him and he tells her she changed his mind and wants to get back together. Mindy accepts.

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