On/off couples are a staple of TV sitcoms. The formula is basically the same in every show: two characters start off as friends or colleagues, there is a mutual attraction which goes unacknowledged for a while, then they hook up a few times and eventually start going out. It never works out the first time, so the couple breaks up and gets back together over and over again until the final episode when they decide to stay together for good and we’re expected to believe that all the problems they had before have completely vanished. This plot was interesting to watch the first hundred times, but by now it’s getting a bit cliché and predictable. It happened with Ross and Rachel, Lorelai and Luke, and Ted and Robin. The most recent TV couple to go down this road was New Girl’s Jess and Nick, who just broke up for the first time. We can expect at least three more seasons of will-they-won’t-they tension before they inevitably do, and all the reasons they decided to break up in the first place are just forgotten.
When The Mindy Project started airing in 2012, it didn’t seem like it would follow this pattern. Mindy Kaling knew what she was doing – she had worked on The Office, mocking on again/off again couples in her own character’s ridiculous relationship with Ryan. The Mindy Project, with all its romcom references and autobiographical elements, seemed too self-aware to go down the same road that so many other sitcoms have.
It was still pretty obvious from the first episode that Mindy and Danny would be the central will-they-won’t-they couple. Even though they were just friends, they were completely perfect for each other: Mindy’s naivety balanced out Danny’s pessimism, and they riffed better with each other than with any other characters. However, it still seemed like Kaling was smart enough to hold off putting the two together until they were ready and the relationship would last.
But she didn’t. The Mindy Project is only at the end of its second season, and Mindy and Danny have already started dating, broken up, and got back together again. Even New Girl didn’t force Nick and Jess together this quickly. Obviously, Mindy and Danny aren’t going to stay together for good – it’s too early in the show’s run for that and viewers would get bored – so we will be subjected to many more break-ups, arguments and plenty of drama before they somehow pull themselves together in the series finale.
The Office’s Jim and Pam are the best example of a show holding off putting a couple together for ages despite clear mutual attraction. Even though it took them ages to actually become an official couple, once they got together they stayed together. The quality of the show didn’t suffer, and The Office managed to maintain will-they-won’t-they tension without millions of break ups. The delayed gratification was rewarding for fans, and the progression of Jim and Pam’s relationship was still interesting to watch even without the drama.
The on/off formula does have its strengths. It is interesting to watch, and a lot of shows would be boring without it. Friends got the balance right, with Ross and Rachel providing the relationship drama and Monica and Chandler acting as the stable, longstanding couple. And, even though in real life when a couple breaks up and gets back together it rarely works, it is still fun to pretend that, despite all their problems, a fictional ex-couple can work it out and stay together for good.
But Mindy and Danny worked better as friends with unacknowledged sexual tension. Inspiration for their relationship has clearly been drawn from When Harry Met Sally, and Harry and Sally were a good couple because they were friends for years before they first slept together, and the ending of the film shows them beginning a relationship for the first time with no past break ups to get over. We’ll never see Danny comforting Mindy after a break up again, and Mindy teasing Danny about his terrible flirting won’t be the same now that they’ve been a couple. The Mindy Project is a strong enough show to still be hilarious and interesting to watch, despite following this tired cliché, but its dynamic changed drastically when Mindy and Danny’s friendship did. They do work well as a couple, but they definitely should have waited a few seasons.