8:30am PT by Kate Stanhope
'Mindy Project' Boss on Danny Hate, Mindy's Bold Move and "Lighter" Tone for Season 4 Return
When The Mindy Project was picked up by Hulu, the team behind the comedy received a huge boost of confidence from their new distributors: a 26-episode fourth season — an increasing rarity in a peak TV world where 10-episode cable dramas and limited series are on the rise.
"We had a lot of of episodes, but the luxury we never had before in working with Hulu is that we knew from the beginning how many episodes we were going to do," showrunner Matt Warburton tells The Hollywood Reporter. "It's hard to plan big things that way and this time we knew, 'OK, we're going to do a big, huge season with a big break in the middle so we can carefully structure everything.'"
Big is an understatement. The beginning of the fourth season saw Mindy Lahiri (creator and star Mindy Kaling) give birth to a baby boy with her colleague and beau Danny (Chris Messina), only to have Danny split town when he had to go to California to take care of his sick father. Danny eventually returned but when he did, the two couldn't come to an agreement about whether Mindy should go back to work or stay at home and focus on having another baby. Fans who had spent seasons rooting for the unlikely couple to get together suddenly and ferociously turned on Danny, and many even questioned Messina's future on the series.
Four months after the winter finale, which saw Mindy return to her old apartment and contemplate moving away from Danny, Warburton talked with The Hollywood Reporter about why he was "thrilled" about the Danny hate, the "lighter" tone to come in season four and why "anything is possible" with the show's central couple.
Mindy and Danny had been having some issues during the first half of the season. Why was it important to show how they first met in the midseason finale? What went into that decision?
It was Mindy's idea, and I think it was a really good one, which was to remind the audience of how different these people were at the beginning of the series. I think people watching the pilot might not have even thought that we had plans to get those two together. So it was to show, whoa, Mindy and Danny have really changed each other in ways that make them better for each other and in ways that make them… I feel like Mindy has grown up through the course of the series to stand up for herself against some of the things Danny has been doing this year. Whereas at the beginning of the series, just the idea that she would have a perfect life with a guy and a kid might have been enough for her.
The other way we look at it is the way to have a tough, dramatic episode that can still have a lot of comedy in it is to jump back to when they were in a funnier place. (Laughs.) That was one reason to do it, but the other reason was to bookend the [first half of the season] and to remind people where we started.
As you said, Mindy really goes to a place we didn't expect when she goes back to her old apartment and starts considering moving out of Danny's apartment. What's behind that thinking?
It was sort of going through the early stages of motherhood and having it be really tough when Danny was around at the beginning of the season and then the idea that she really found her legs both running her own business and being a mom when Danny was away taking care of his dad. Then all of a sudden, Danny comes back and thinks everything is the same but everything is different. Mindy now has this new sense of confidence and so she said certain things earlier in the season and he's holding her to them but she's a different person now, so moving forward now, she's really going to have to think and reprioritize. She and Danny have a kid together so there's no world where he's just out of the picture, but she does have some real options and she kept her apartment all this time for a reason.
One thing I want to emphasize about the upcoming episodes is I feel like we had a very heavily serialized first 13 with tons and tons of really heavy drama, and one of the things I'm really proud of is that we're really paying off on where that all goes in the back 13, but I think the audience is going to be happy to know it's also really funny and has a lighter tone. If that was winter, this is springtime. So these episodes, I think it's safe to say, were a little less serialized. We're going to explore Mindy's relationship with female friends and with other aspects of her life and her business in addition to the drama that's going on with Danny and motherhood and all that stuff. We took it on as a project for ourselves to kind of balance these episodes with the other parts of Mindy's life.
How concerned were you that balance of finding humor while putting Mindy and Danny through these tough times?
I feel like, for Mindy, these episodes coming up remind her of season two when you really have Mindy finding her feet. Danny is there, they have their issues, but there's sort of a wider world and we're really excited. We're really, really reaching back into our well of great guest stars and bringing back all the fan favorites. We've got Peter, played by Adam Pally coming back, we've got Pastor Casey, played by Anders Holm, we're going to see Mindy's parents again, who the audience really seemed to respond to, the Duplass brothers are coming back. It's just going to be, in addition to some great new characters, a greatest hits of things people have loved about the past seasons.
How much of a role does the question of Mindy and Danny's relationship and that whole issue play in these less serialized episodes?
It's definitely going to be a huge part of all the episodes pretty much. It's one of the central parts of her life at this point, especially because she has a kid. There's no easy solution one way or another. They have to work things out somehow, so I think what we've succeeded in doing is having the heavier stuff be in the background for some of these episodes while Mindy has other things on her plate. But the ups and downs of the Mindy-Danny relationship are really the story of this entire 26-episode season, really from the first episode to the last. It will be a single, unified story that has some little fun ripples that standalone in between.
How far after the midseason finale does the premiere pick up?
It's pretty much in real time so as much time has passed in our audience's life. I don’t want to give away too much but we have a really cool way of catching people up on what's happened in the meantime in Mindy's life. We're really proud of it. It's one of the better pieces we've done and it’s the first thing that happens in the episode.
What does Mindy and Danny's relationship look like? Have they made any decisions or are they still figuring things out?
That's one of the things we're going to have to have the audience wait and see for themselves. It's the thing I'm most excited to see how people respond to.
The beginning of the season, people started to have a very strong and negative reaction to Danny's character…
I was fascinated by that.
How much of that did you expect? Were you ever worried about the fans turning against Danny too much?
When you take a beloved character like that and put them through some stuff, I was very worried that the fans were going to be mad at us. What was really awesome, I thought, was that so many female fans reached out to us and said, "This happened to me." They were mad at Danny the character and were defending Mindy on the way that Danny was bossing her around and telling her what to do with her life so we were thrilled. We felt like it was a little bit risky to take this character that started out as such as jerk and we put so much work into humanizing him and rounding him out that and try and veer and start to complicate things again with him… I'm just glad that they didn't come at us with pitchforks. They seemed to be on board and to stick up for our main character. (Laughs.) I was very, very glad.
But after putting so much effort into humanizing the character, was there ever a point where you worried about making him likable again? Was there ever concern about this character becoming too unlikable?
Yeah, we'll have to see how people respond to what's coming. I think he's still a very lovable character and one of the things I think is interesting is if you look at Danny in season one, he's on the record: "I never want to have kids. My heart was broken by this woman one time and I don’t think I can ever go down that road again." I think Mindy has actually fixed him to the point where the problem is the opposite that it used to be. He wants so much fatherhood, so much family that it's not a great time for Mindy so it’s a more likeable problem for Danny. What he wants is nice and good, but in a very realistic way, it's just about how one person can't make that kind of decision. So one of the things that I found interesting as a challenge was having these two people, when they get together, kind of solve each other's problems almost past each other at a certain point. Mindy started out as a romantic who thought all she wanted was a guy and here she's found all these other things that she wants in addition to wanting the perfect guy, and Danny has sort of gone in the opposite direction from a cold guy that keeps everyone out to a guy who wants as big a family as possible. I think the audience is with us. What's interesting is that we get to tell the story after the simple, happy ending is over.
They're such opposite characters. When you think of the end of the show, are they still the end game? Is there still hope for them?
Oh, absolutely. We're catching them in a rocky patch and we don’t have the end in mind. Maybe Mindy has it; she hasn’t told me. But the goal is just try and reach into our audience's lives and paint the story of a real, 3D, modern relationship and any outcome is possible. I would believe anything. You look to the history of TV and fiction and find great examples of great love stories that end well and great love stories that end badly. Hopefully we can tell a story that completes the story of Mindy Lahiri, whatever the outcome is.
There were questions about Chris Messina's screen time in the first half of the season because he left to shoot a movie. What can you say about his presence in the second half of the episodes?
He's a big presence in the episodes. We always try to accommodate our actors' other stuff that's going on. He's present throughout the season.
Would you say he's more present than the first half of the season when when Danny was in California?
I think it's still similar to what we've been seeing.
You mentioned exploring Mindy's female friendships. What does that look like now that she's somewhat estranged from Danny?
We have a couple actresses that we absolutely love in Cristin Milioti and Eliza Coupe, who play a couple of Mindy's friends. Whitney is sort of an investment banker who is trying to get off cocaine and Chelsea is a very, let's say sexually adventurous person who pushes Mindy to be as wild as possible. We've met these characters in the past and we're going to see them again a little bit more in the upcoming episodes because it's something that our fans have just been asking for. They want to see Mindy out with friends and not just with a guy all the time. It's been a lot of fun and Cristin and Eliza are just such funny, talented comic actresses that Mindy loves working with them.
How has it been balancing all these different characters on the show?
It's a lot to juggle. The nice thing is you can bring in a guest star and pair them with someone we know and you get the best of both worlds.
Now that you're almost at the end of this season, what kind of conversations have you and Mindy had with Hulu about what the next step is and what the order is?
We haven't heard anything formally but we're optimistic and hopeful. Hulu seems to be very happy with the show and I think we've really found an audience that’s migrated to streaming so yeah, we're definitely optimistic and anxiously talking about the next step.
Does the finale end on a cliffhanger where you assume there will be more after that?
The spring finale will leave people in a very-much-up-in-the-air place in a way that I'm excited to see how they react.
Beyond that, as you're getting later into the series' run and we’ve seen these characters grow so much, what kind of conversations have you and Mindy had about how much longer you see the show running?
I think its an annual discussion. We definitely feel we have a lot more story to tell with these characters. You want to see Leo grow up. You want to see where things go with Mindy and Danny and all the problems that people are going to learn about coming up. I think there's plenty of gas left in the tank at this point.
New episodes of The Mindy Project premiere every Tuesday on Hulu.