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The amazing punchlines are intact, but The Mindy Project, so early in this third season, has fallen into a plot rut. In episode three. We saw a similar situation to this episode’s setup as recently as the season opener, two weeks ago: Mindy and Danny each have a secret from each other, although Danny’s secret is bigger than Mindy’s (Mindy has dinner with Cliff, Danny’s still married), leading to a rift, in which Danny gets taught a lesson by a guest star (here Glenn Howerton makes another welcome appearance as Cliff), which leads him to a relationship revelation about Mindy. As the episode unfolds, it seems familiar in a flat way, not in a comforting way.

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Even apart from the lying hijinks, the opening plot is right out of Sex And The City (Gawd, I even remember the episode title: “Evolution”), when Carrie tries to sneak toiletries into Mr. Big’s apartment. It’s so spot-on that I can’t tell if Mindy is paying homage to another rom-com sitcom or just mimicking it, but, at any rate, the absurdist level Mindy reaches is of course an improvement: the fact that it’s just a hairbrush and a toothbrush, which get stashed (and found) behind the toilet, in the microwave, and behind the fire escape. Danny does appear to be all-in with Mindy, so the fact that he is so reluctant to let her stuff in doesn’t add up, unless he really just is that much of a neat freak with the lair of a serial killer. (The squeakiness of Mr. Wheelie, however, is an painfully effective sound effect.) But Danny’s so thorough about everything else in his life, it’s odd that there’s no reasoning for the fact that he hasn’t divorced yet. Mindy’s lack of paperwork follow-through fits her character, but Danny’s is unusual, so does this imply that he’s not over his divorce? Seems unlikely, so why hadn’t he filed?

All the possible fun potential tension between Peter and Jeremy quickly dissipates as Lauren hooks up with Jeremy at the end of the episode. I like Tracey Wigfield as Lauren, but I didn’t ever really get a feeling that she actually liked Peter. In about half the scenes she is even in, she’s breaking up with him. Henry the baby has much better taste in people. The episode description listed “Peter and Jeremy secretly try to win Lauren’s affections by outdoing each other,” which sounds a lot more interesting than what actually happened.

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Still, as always with Mindy, the high spots help you to look past annoyances like these: For example, Cliff is about a thousand times more interesting since he and Mindy broke up, so Glenn Howerton is always welcome. He’s fantastic when he calls Mindy and Danny out on their lies and crimes, or, especially, the fact that he’s going to go off and torch Danny’s Yankee seat.

And as usual (over the past season or so, anyway), there are just so many awesome one-shots: the accountant who gives up and says that he’ll just retire (my favorite of the night); Mindy’s dissing of national landmarks like the Liberty Bell and national parks, as well as the things her taxes go for, like building roads and lining Laura Linney’s pockets for PBS; everyone making fun of Morgan for whining that he doesn’t make enough money to even have to pay taxes; Danny wanting Mindy to dress up like one of the Pink Ladies from Grease.

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Thankfully, the episode’s best moments again point to further solidification of Mindy and Danny: He knows she just wants to eat all the chocolate off of his ice cream bars; she realizes she’s dating Andy Rooney. They are fully aware each other’s quirks and sore spots and wouldn’t change a thing, which is lovely, and leads to cute furniture.

But couldn’t Danny finally come to a revelation about his relationship with Mindy without a lecture from Peter (“Indian BBW,” “Danny And Mindy”) or Cousin Lou (“We’re A Couple Now, Haters!”) or Cliff (tonight)? There is a lot of nit-picking we could do here about Mindy plot rotation or the character inconsistencies I mentioned above, or…we could look at the show on a line-by-line basis, and the list of zingers is just unbelievable. Honestly, is there any other show out there this jam-packed with witty brilliance? Looking at The Mindy Project’s big picture can be a bit of a disappointment, but zeroing in on its many moments of comic genius is nothing less than delightful. Its near-constant, dizzying humor makes up for what might otherwise be painful shortcomings. Not to say that there aren’t times when The Mindy Project doesn’t get everything right; so far season three is on a good streak, but it hasn’t landed there just yet.

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Stray observations:

  • I know we’ve seen glimpses of her right-wing self before, but it’s just disappointing that Mindy reads Sarah Palin. Although Mindy clearly isn’t much of a conservationist either, after that incident with the faucet and her dismissing of public television in one of the funniest lines of the night.
  • Anyone else think this episode was a bit ass-heavy? Mindy’s fart joke, Peter doing an “assload” of thinking, and I thought Danny’s imitation of Mindy’s butt was kind of creepy.
  • Love how Peter’s Austin Powers impersonation when he called Lauren’s office devolved into the funniest fake phone accent since Mad Men’s “Pizza house!”
  • “Put a pin in it” has to be one of my least favorite expressions, right up there with “No worries,” and “Right on.”
  • Also always welcome: A midwife appearance: “Mindy. Daniel. Healthcliff.”
  • I do love The Mindy Project’s stylist for its star: If anyone has a line on that dress in the elevator, let me know.
  • “It was an everything bagel; now it’s nothing!”
  • What happened to Mindy’s shoe at McFadden’s steakhouse?
  • I really love this: “The Liberty Bell is a piece of crap. It’s got a crack right down the middle, and you know what? That was jacked up well before I hit the scene.”
  • I also appreciate how Mindy people can be just straightforwardly impolite to each other: “It’s a loan.” “I can never repay you, and I don’t plan to.” “It was nice knowing all of you.” “Can’t say the same, being honest.”
  • And about once a week we get a completely meta line: “That was a crazy time! The leaves were changing, everyone was really excited about the new fall shows…”

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