You have to hand it to Mindy Kaling. Her self-titled sitcom got axed from Fox after three seasons. She jumps to Hulu, increases her episode order, and opens up with an amazing season-opener, her best-ever.

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From the rocky early days of The Mindy Project, Kaling and her sitcom alter-ego Mindy Lahiri have both been obsessed with the idealized situations of romantic comedies. Kaling’s previous best efforts, like the season-two ender, “Danny And Mindy,” spun off from well-established tropes from movies like You’ve Got Mail. Unlike (still-funny) spoofs like They Came Together, say, Kaling appears to have nothing but the highest regard for these fantastical movies, even as she realizes how far-removed they are from actual reality. The best parts of The Mindy Project are when she brings these fantastical and realistic worlds together.

“While I Was Sleeping” surpasses even the excellence of “Danny And Mindy,” as Kaling combines the alternate realities of 13 Going On 30 (with a little It’s A Wonderful Life thrown in, except not boring), with Sliding Doors: the concept that one act can change your whole life in an instant. She even bests Gwyneth Paltrow’s whiny accented movie, in which her fate is subject to the doors of the title, because Mindy’s fate is based the lack of a romantic act by Danny. When Danny doesn’t come and kiss her on the plane when they fly back from California, out of fear, Mindy’s life spins out into an entirely different trajectory.

And what a ride that is: Fortunately, the love interest in Mindy’s alternate universe is played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who automatically makes everything he’s in a thousand times better. Here he’s the perfect husband, making breakfast on a soap-opera set, until he reveals his dark side: He and Mindy have an open relationship, which is far from the romantic ideal that we’ve seen Mindy Lahiri pine for so far. (Plus, the Mindy we know would never have an extramarital affair with a Deslaurier.)

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As fun as Mindy’s alternate timeline is, it’s balanced by Danny’s (and Morgan’s) actual journey to India. Yes, it’s contrived that Danny doesn’t automatically let on that he’s the father of Mindy’s baby, but his interactions with her parents are so delightful we almost don’t mind. Ajay Mehta and Sakina Jaffrey are perfectly cast as Mindy’s parents, and both possess a refreshing confidence that makes it easy to see where Mindy’s indomitable self-esteem comes from. The combination of Mindy’s theatrical mother and scientist father not only perfectly depict why Mindy is the way she is, their wonderful marriage explains why Mindy herself will settle for nothing less.

Morgan has been a problematic character in the past, and with the loss of Adam Pally, and no one replacing him yet, it looks like Ike Barinholtz will be playing a larger part on the show. But in this episode, he finally makes sense, because who else but Morgan would track Danny all the way to India through Pakistan? Or send Mindy’s dad an unframed Rat Pack poster?

The Lahiri parents are so delightful that they even sway bitter, annulled Danny into considering marriage again. Which is fortunate for him, because we see the grump he turns into without Mindy in his life, a nice nod to the actual grump he was in the show’s earlier seasons. When Mindy goes after him (of course in the rain), displacing that awful Freida Pinto, will a kiss be enough? Is there really someone we’re supposed to be with, no matter what circumstances change around us? Danny and Mindy’s kiss in the rain would indicate that this is true. But in this alternate universe, there are just too many complications, like Freida Pinto and Mindy’s cute husband. In a spot-on nod to the Gwyneth movie, Mindy gets hit by a truck, but fortunately wakes up in her own bed.

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The hard part about depicting romance onscreen is that most relationships get irritating after a while, even withe the perfect person. Danny’s apartment looks like Teddy Roosevelt decorated it and he won’t even let Mindy’s South Park pinball machine out of storage. In Mindy’s alternate life, the pinball machine she was fixated on is prominent, but that’s hardly what matters without true love in her life. So Danny proposes at the end of the episode, like he was meant to, and we can look forward to a season full of baby preparation and wedding planning.

None of us are perfect, but what Kaling points out here is that the perfect person makes us better. Danny without Mindy loses all of that charm we’ve come to love, while Mindy without Danny comes up with ideas that don’t actually fit her life, like open marriage. They’re better together than they were apart, resulting in the most fully realized romantic relationship on TV right now.

Stray observations

  • ”Were you on the jury for my public urination trial? Thanks for nothing, by the way.” Not only does Kaling get gold stars for writing this episode, but just the way she drops the all the waters bottles—twice—is absolutely brilliant.
  • There’s not enough room on the internet for me to able to give Joseph Gordon-Levitt enough accolades for fulling committing to his role as the producer of Real Housewives: Black Vs. White. Arranging his Emmys, “S my own D for the rest of my L,” ranting when Mindy balks at their open setup, slamming the pinball machine on his way out. I wish there was a way he could return to the show without Mindy having to be in a coma or something.
  • So many great deliveries in this episode: Morgan: “It says here you like to dance. I myself I coudn’t walk until I was 12. Can you speak to that?”
  • Also Mindy’s dad: “It’s the greatest family in the world!”
  • And even Freida Pinto: “Danny, she’s killing me! She’s so heavy!”
  • Mindy’s best outfit: That black, jeweled low-cut dress she goes after Danny in. Just stunning.
  • In fact, if this was a rom-com, this would be the point where I would say that I’m all in. Can’t wait for next week. Please don’t let me down, Mindy Project.

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