First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the baby in the baby carriage.
Even as a public school student in the 1990s (in California, no less!), I knew that ditty. But it’s hard to imagine school kids still chanting that today: for many of them, their own parents won’t have followed that order of events.
This season of The Mindy Project is a surprisingly dark exploration of what happens when a couple reverses the marriage-baby order.
In recent episodes, we’ve seen the main characters, Mindy Lahiri and Danny Castellano, two OB/GYNs who worked together for years before falling in love, fight over whether they should have more kids (they accidentally became pregnant with their son Leo when they were dating). They have also fought about whether or not Mindy should work or become a stay-at-home mom. These haven’t been cute television fights, designed to give some faux conflict to make the show work. They’ve been real—and frankly, brutal to watch.
Take their fight over whether to have more kids. Mindy discovers that Danny has been tracking her ovulation cycle, and deliberately took her out to a romantic dinner (and urged her to indulge in several drinks) so they would have sex and presumably, she would get pregnant. Mindy’s reaction isn’t to confront Danny, but instead to secretly get a prescription for birth control.
“Real relationships are not—they’re not like the movies,” Danny snarls to a man who is on a first date when he and Mindy are fighting during a screening of the movie, When Harry Met Sally. “Look at this thing, it’s a bunch of lies.”
Danny’s attitude seems to be echoed by the critics who are embracing The Mindy Project’s darker storyline. Writing about the fights, The Atlantic’s Megan Garber asked, “Why are these desires just now coming out? Because, on the one hand, talking is not romantic. It’s dull. It’s boring. And: It’s not generally addressed in traditional rom-coms, which tend to prioritize the unspoken—passionate desire, thwarted and fulfilled—over the talked-about.”
Although it is a serialized television show, The Mindy Project’s original narrative arc resembled the romantic comedies that have been staples of the movie box office for years. But, perhaps unintentionally, this season of the show is affirming the wisdom of ending rom-coms at the altar.
In many ways, Danny and Mindy are proving to be the fictional poster couple for the challenges faced by people who embrace having children before marriage. Sure, some people rush into marriage. But most people, whether because of their moral views on marriage or the legal hassles of ending one, take it seriously. While having children no doubt throws some new problems at married parents, it’s implausible that a smart couple like Danny and Mindy would get married without having discussed issues like how many children they wanted to have or what the back-up plan was if Mindy found she didn’t like being a stay-at-home mom.
But they didn’t get married. (This season began with them fighting over marriage—Mindy wanted to get married; Danny didn’t.) And now they have a young son whose life will be affected by his parents’ choices. If Danny and Mindy had, prior to Leo’s conception, decided that much as they loved each other, they could not agree on shared values about parenting and number of children, they could have walked away from each other. It would have been sad, but not tragic.
Now, with Leo’s need for a mom and dad living together on the line, it will be tragic if they can’t make it work.
Traditional rom-coms (and Jane Austen novels, for that matter) end the story at the altar not because of an absurd notion that love can overcome all conflicts in a marriage. Instead, they end at the altar because the altar should be the endpoint of a couple’s journey of discovering shared values, exploring significant differences, and finding ways to resolve conflicts. It is where couples pledge to do that together for the rest of their lives.
As a fan of rom-coms, I was thrilled when The Mindy Project began, thinking it would be like my favorite movies, but delivered one episode at a time. Instead, it’s showing, truthfully, why traditional rom-com movies might be on a permanent downward trend: Because our new social norms don’t lend themselves to true, life-long commitment. And there’s nothing funny about that.