As NBC attempts to go more big and broad with its comedies, other networks are attempting to swipe the audience that the peacock network once dominated.
As loved as "Community" and "Parks and Recreation" are, we know, at this point, that they're far from the cornerstones of NBC's future. As the network frantically attempts to move on, they're the boxes in the attic that don't even get put in the moving truck because nobody thinks they'll need them. (And, sad to say, "The Office" is the moldy leftovers they kind of forgot were in the fridge.)
ABC is already well on the path to domination in the aspirational single-camera comedy realm, with its Emmy-devouring "Modern Family" efficiently using the tools "The Office" made popular to make a comedy with very retro (and sometimes lazy) tendencies. "Modern Family" hasn't gotten any sharper with age, in fact, the opposite is the case, but tell that to ABC executives and Emmy voters, who will keep renewing it/voting for it until the sun burns out. Whatever your feelings about "Modern Family," though, you can't deny that in that show, "Suburgatory," "Happy Endings" and "The Middle," the network has a nice array of generally well-made comedies that don't quite pull in the viewership figures of CBS' more traditional fare, but still fit in quite nicely in with ABC's shiny, positive brand.
All the networks actually have pretty well-defined comedy brands at this point, with ABC's being upbeat and relationship-oriented, CBS' staid, efficient and unchallenging, and NBC -- well, NBC's most notable fall programs are "Animal Practice" and "Revolution," and if you think "Monkey Apocalypse" isn't going to be on the schedule next fall, you're dreaming.
Fox has obviously dominated the animation arena since dinosaurs roamed the earth, but it's looking to play some catch-up in the live-action comedy realm, and it laid a very solid foundation with "New Girl" (whose creator and executive producers I recently interviewed). This year, Fox returns to that basic premise -- young, attractive people figuring out adulthood as slightly clueless singletons -- with two new comedies, "Ben and Kate" (premieres on Tues., Sept. 25 at 8:30 p.m. ET) and "The Mindy Project" (premieres Tues., Sept. 25 at 9:30 p.m.).
Neither comedy is really there yet, but "Ben and Kate" is the more promising of the two, which is weird, given that "Mindy Project" is the first solo project of "Office" writer-actor Mindy Kaling. Both deserve more time to figure out what they want to do, but my patience for "Mindy" is far more scanty than I thought it would be.
As "New Girl" did, both comedies take tropes associated with women and play around with them. A term invented by AV Club critic Nathan Rabin, "manic pixie dream girl," fit "New Girl" so well that the show's marketing folks actually unselfconsciously adopted it to sell merchandise. Of course, "New Girl" wisely moved well beyond its lead characters "adorkable" qualities, but "Ben and Kate" almost entirely rests on a similarly conceit. The difference is, the manic pixie dream girl here is a boy.
"Ben and Kate" stars Dakota Johnson and Nat Faxon as siblings who depend on each other to an unusual degree. Kate, a single mom, is the responsible one, and every time her impulsive and emotional brother turns up, he generally wreaks havoc on Kate's life.
The pilot's job is to convince us to root for these crazy siblings to make their relationship work, and "Ben and Kate" more or less does that, despite a fair amount of flop sweat and manic energy. It's the kind of show that could well settle into a nice groove once it gets a few episodes in, especially given that all the performances are top notch, including those from Lucy Punch and Echo Kellum as friends of the title duo.
The job of "The Mindy Project" was to make me root for the fictional Mindy Lahiri or merely want to spend more time in her presence. It didn't get very far in either of those arenas, and I didn't find it very funny either.
Speaking of pop-culture tropes involving female characters, Mindy is obsessed with romantic comedies, and she's also an obstetrician-gynecologist, thus ensuring that "The Mindy Project" has double the usual number of opportunities to use the word "vagina." In an admirable show of restraint, "The Mindy Project" refrains from going there in the script, even though a scene involves Mindy delivering a baby from one.
In other ways, however, "The Mindy Project" goes way overboard. The show tells us repeatedly that Mindy loves romantic comedies, but offers us no indication that Mindy yearns for romantic love or a committed relationship. She seems quite happy to sleep with her hot, dumb British co-worker for kicks, and that's fine, but if that's her preference, why hit us over the head with the "When Harry Met Sally" references?
Actually, the cultural reference "Mindy Project" brings to mind is the tiresome '90s canard that tried to get a whole generation of professional women to believe that if they were single in their 30s, they might as well just give up because potential mates were rarer than left-handed unicorns. Romantic comedies are also a hugely problematic area; the classics are great because they generally feature two intriguing characters working through their differences, while the kind of moronic movies that Kate Hudson and Katherine Heigl usually star in are all about taking over-educated womenfolk down a few pegs. Romantic comedies are not all the same, but "Mindy" uses these references as a kind of shorthand that ends up making everything more muddled, not more resonant.
It's hard not to wonder if Kaling wanted to create a female anti-hero (which is a great idea) but stopped short because broadcast networks aren't especially interested in those, especially in the comedy arena. In any event, the lead character is so tonally mixed up that it's hard not to get whiplash from watching the pilot.
Perhaps Dr. Lahiri's self-absorption is meant to be funny, but given that "Mindy" also wants you to care about her aspirations, there's a big disjunction at the heart of the show. In one key "Mindy" scene [and you can skip the rest of the paragraph if you're anti-spoiler], a patient's worried child calls Mindy when she's out on a date with an unexceptional Wall Street guy (nicely played by Ed Helms). For a long time, Mindy refuses to take the call or leave her date, because for a woman to get a chance to go out a decent-looking guy with a real job is so rare, right? That behavior is off-putting, and there's no indication anyone involved in the show thinks that's the case. All in all, there's a weird stew of ideas about expectations, desire and anger roiling around in "Mindy," but as they're explored here, those ideas don't cohere into a show that's either funny or cogent.
Given its pedigree and its fine supporting cast (which includes Stephen Tobolowsky and Anna Camp), and the sparky relationship that Mindy has with Chris Messina's regular-guy doctor, I'll keep watching to see whether "The Mindy Project" grows out of its creaky "Women Are from Mars, Men Are from Venus" starting point. After all, I wasn't all that high on "New Girl," but that show turned into something pretty swell. Let's hope Fox's ongoing efforts to steal NBC's lunch money continues to yield worthwhile comedic dividends.
Note: Ryan McGee and I spoke about "New Girl," "The Mindy Project" and "Ben and Kate" in the Talking TV with Ryan and Ryan podcast below. Other recent podcasts of note: Ryan and I talk "Elementary," "Made in Jersey" and "Vegas," and New Yorker TV critic Emily Nussbaum and I talk about her Buffy/Tony Soprano Theory of Golden Age Television. Finally, we chat about "Call the Midwife," "Homeland" and "Last Resort" -- three of my four favorite drama newcomers -- in this podcast. Check the Talking TV page (and the podcast is also available on iTunes) for additional podcasting goodness.
Follow Maureen Ryan on Twitter: www.twitter.com/moryan