You can see why Fox picked The Mindy Project and Ben and Kate to launch together on Tuesday nights with New Girl. They’re both about young, single adults gettin’ by and lookin’ for love. They’re both somewhere on the now-vastly-sprawling family tree of Judd Apatow-esque awkward comedy. Each pilot even has scenes of a lead character disrupting a wedding and ending up in a pool.
And yet the two shows, compatible as schedule partners, are also examples of very different bases for a sitcom to build on as it finds itself.
Taken in themselves, the pilots are at about the same quality: uneven, with very promising set pieces, and probably the two best sitcom pilots in a not-fantastic fall for new sitcoms. But they start out by establishing different strengths, with different holes to fill in, and they could prove to be an interesting experiment in what’s a better basis to build a sitcom from: a high profile and a big idea, or low-stakes and low-key appeal?
Mindy, which I previewed earlier this summer and has not changed radically from that early pilot, is the show you’ve probably heard more about. It has the bigger star: writer-actress Mindy Kaling from The Office. And it arrives with a specific determination to be about stuff: in particular, the myths of Hollywood romance and what makes a rom-com heroine. Kaling plays Mindy Lahiri, a 31-year-old OB/GYN with a lifelong fixation on Meg Ryan movies, one that has not translated into a Hollywood happy ending in her personal life.
The pilot has strong set pieces that establish its themes and aims: a sequence where Mindy meets a dream guy in a stereotypical meet-cute in an elevator (“I’m basically Sandra Bullock here!”); Mindy’s hitting bottom after said guy throws her over for a younger chick; a brassy sequence of Mindy prepping for surgery to the tune of MIA’s “Bad Girls.” It feels like it could, indeed, be a 90-minute movie. But it doesn’t yet have a steady handle on its characters–particularly, oddly, Mindy’s. In the first half-hour she swings from empathetic to callous, smart to borderline-nuts, likeable-but-flawed to off-putting.
A very strong character can be all these things, of course! It’s not a stretch to see Mindy as a variation on Girls’ Hannah Horvath—ten years older, with different ambitions, but with a similar balance of self-destructiveness and humanity. But as Lena Dunham’s deft portrayal of Hannah showed, it’s no easy trick to write a character like this as a seamless, complicated person. The supporting characters, meanwhile, include—romcom style—a pair of male doctors in her practice: her slick, hunky sometime sex-buddy and the sarcastic, abrasive guy that, Mindy’s movies tell us, she will have will-they-won’t-they tension with. In all, it’s a polished pilot, but one that will have to ground its characters better to work as a series.
I’m guessing you haven’t heard as much buzz about Fox’s Ben and Kate. It doesn’t have big names—no offense to Nat Faxon and Dakota Johnson as the title characters, or Lucy Punch as Kate’s saucy best friend BJ. It doesn’t have a showy premise: unreliable brother of a single mom moves in with her, a la You Can Count on Me. It doesn’t even have a particularly novel pilot plot: Ben rolls back into town to try to disrupt the wedding of an old flame, enlisting Kate’s five-year-old daughter in the caper.
What the pilot does have is simple charm, and enough laughs to give me a gut feeling that this show can build on the setup of a brother-sister pair who, between the two of them, make approximately one functional adult. Ben—a man-boy with an active fantasy life reminiscent of Parks and Recreation’s Andy—complements his sister, forced by early motherhood into being a grown-up before she really figured herself out as a person. The first episode is hardly perfect, but it feels lived-in, like the characters have actual, pre-existing relationships and reasons to like one another. For my money, this character-first approach may give Ben and Kate more room to grow, more convincingly, than Mindy.
Each of these comedies has double-edged potential: Ben and Kate could be too slight, The Mindy Project too abrasive. But each could have the ingredients to follow their schedule-mate New Girl, which began with strengths (sharp buddy humor) and problems (overfocusing on Jess’ quirks) to figure itself out on the fly as an ensemble comedy. This year’s new girls—and guy—could learn something from it.