“Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall.”
– The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
I used to look forward to the arrival of fall because it meant a new school year: new classes and teachers, new clothes and new school supplies. Until a few years ago, September felt like the start of everything.
But now I’m an adult (or at least an “adult”), and fall doesn’t hold quite as many beginnings. I work year round, I’m not a teacher or a parent, and no one is paying for my new fall wardrobe but me. Perhaps saddest of all, these days I rarely have an excuse to make a Staples run. But there is one thing that has always made the fall new and exciting, something I haven’t had to give up as I’ve gotten older. Fall still means new TV.
Not that there isn’t new TV year round these days. Between summer seasons, mid-season replacements, winter premieres…there rarely comes a time when there’s nothing new to watch. Doctor Who fans even get a new episode on Christmas each year. But there’s nothing quite like that mad rush of fresh programming each September and October–the excitement of a cliffhanger resolved, the anticipation of a new series from a writer or actor you like, the expansion of familiar universes and the discovery of new ones, and all of that potential for greatness.
Life starts all over again.
There’s something especially exciting about a single night of TV coming together—and even more so when it all happens on one network. NBC does a pretty solid job with their Thursday nights (certain Whitneys not withstanding), but they’re breaking that party up a little this year, moving Community to Friday—where it probably won’t do any better, but can at least run through its ordered episodes without tanking the network on a big night—and suddenly FOX’s new Tuesday night has become my most anticipated evening of the week.
I’m already a big fan of the tragically under-watched Raising Hope and the funny, distinct New Girl, which will be heading off the 8 o’clock and 9 o’clock hours respectively, and Mindy Kaling (her wildly incorrect feelings about Walter White aside) is basically my hero/role model/spirit animal/queen in every way, so I’ve been excited for The Mindy Project since it was first mentioned as a hey-maybe-this-is-what-she’ll-do-someday-when-she’s-done-with-The-Office idea several years ago. I didn’t really know much about Ben and Kate, the 8:30pm show, but if the cast (Dakota Johnson, who played my personal favorite character in The Social Network, Oscar Winner Nat Faxon, plus the adorable kid who proclaimed “we bought a zoo!” in, uh, We Bought a Zoo) wasn’t enough to convince me it was worth a shot, the word coming out of this year’s TCA Press Tour was that the pilot is strong and the creators seemed to know what they were doing. Practically an unheard of combination.
Comedy pilots are notoriously difficult. Great situation comedy, after all, often comes from a familiarity with the situation. A pilot is about establishing that situation, though, introducing the audience to the characters and setting and premise. I tend to find pilots better when I revisit them, once I know what I’m dealing with. Sure it’s funny to watch Nick Miller put on a fake accent to drunk dial his ex-girlfriend in the New Girl pilot, but it’s funnier once you really know who Nick Miller is. It’s funnier when you’ve heard the break-up poetry he wrote about that same ex-girlfriend. I’m not saying that there are no great comedy pilots (hi, Arrested Development), just that a pilot is not necessarily indicative of the show to come.
So I’m not too concerned when I tell you that I didn’t love the pilot for The Mindy Project (which is currently available streaming on Hulu). I liked it, I have very high hopes for the series and I won’t be surprised if it meets them, but I didn’t fall head-over-heels for this first episode.
Its biggest failing is that it’s very difficult to introduce that many characters in 22 minutes. Of course there’s Mindy, who is understandably the most developed character at this point, but you also have Danny (played by the immensely lovable Chris Messina) the gruff and antagonistic love interest, and Jeremy (Ed Weeks), the flirtations bad-boy love interest. Then there’s Gwen (Anna Camp!!!!), the put-together best friend, Betsy and Shauna (Zoe Jarman and Amanda Setton), the quirky assistants and Dr. Schulman (Stephen Tobolowsky), the waffling boss. And guest stars! Ed Helms as a blind date and Bill Hader as an ex-boyfriend. Plus a patient-of-the-week. Right now these characters don’t feel like much more than sketches—and rough ones at that. I look forward to getting to know them better, but I don’t know them yet.
The jokes were strong and smart—I’m still laughing at Mindy’s line about moving forward in her life through spinning—and the basic premise, of a woman trying to improve herself, is loose enough to drive stories without consuming them. And I’m a sucker for an antagonistic friendship slow-burning into a love story, which is almost certainly where Mindy and Danny are headed in the long run. The Mindy Project’s potential is significant. It just doesn’t quite meet it in the pilot.
Ben and Kate (also available streaming), felt more developed. In 22 minutes the pilot establishes backstory, characters and relationships, gets in several good jokes and a couple of capers, and sets itself up for future stories. (There’s also some truly excellent physical comedy from Dakota Johnson in the tag.) After watching The Mindy Project I felt like I knew Mindy. After watching Ben and Kate I felt like I knew Ben and Kate and BJ and Tommy and Maddie.
The Mindy Project and Ben and Kate don’t necessarily seem like shows that have much in common (though both pilots feature their main characters landing in swimming pools), but they do feel like they fit together, especially in the larger FOX Tuesday comedy block, where Raising Hopeis a very funny show about a family of oddballs raising a kid, and New Girl is a very funny show about single thirty-somethings raising each other.
It feels like FOX is developing a solid voice and vision for Tuesday night, pairing shows that flatter each other without seeming like carbon copies—unlike, say, Friday nights on NBC, where Community is pairing with Whitney. It makes Tuesdays feel like an event to look forward to each week, and an excuse to lose the remote for a couple of hours.
There are still a few weeks before the TV season really gets started, before it gets crisp in the fall, but I’m itching for it the way I did for all those first days of school. It may not require a new wardrobe, but hey, TV doesn’t assign homework either.
PSA: I saw these pilots at a screening FOX put together, which was followed by a live (simulcast) Q&A with the casts of all 4 Tuesday night shows. You can watch that Q&A here and I highly recommend it. No one really bothers to answer the questions, but they’re all very funny and charming and Max Greenfield and Jake Johnson should be given their own talk-show or something.