Kate always wants to do the right thing. Mindy, not so much. Ben will explain his elaborate plan to do the right thing as soon as he unloads his drum kit.
Fox unveils two comedies Tuesday night, layering them with new episodes of “New Girl.” For fans of Jess, “Ben and Kate” and “The Mindy Project” offer gal-pal potential in drastically different packages.
Kate of “Ben and Kate” has been so dogged in her pursuit to raise her child well that when she decides to re-enter the dating world, she’s robin’s-egg delicate. Mindy has a pile of baggage and a friend with benefits.
It’s unfortunate that both female leads begin their series obsessing over a Really Important Date. Beyond all that fretting and primping, Kate and Mindy are funny and fully realized, a result of women controlling both shows behind the camera.
Mindy Kaling will soon be leaving “The Office,” where she was also a writer and story editor, to work solely on her “Project.” It was another female showrunner, Elizabeth Meriwether of “New Girl,” who urged the creator of “Ben and Kate” to try her hand at TV.
Dana Fox, who had been writing romantic comedies like “What Happens in Vegas,” got personal: She based her series on her friendship with her older brother. The TV Ben Fox is based on a real Ben Fox, often referred to as “a Ferris Bueller-type guy” by his sister.
The real-life Ben would crash parties, then crash the job-placement center at Stanford for interviews. At the first read-through of the show’s script, Dana looked up and saw her uninvited brother sitting among the actors and network executives.
In the show’s pilot, Ben’s quirkiness occasionally goes over the top. A smack to the back of his head would be tempting. As Ben, Nat Faxon brings a refreshingly real face — his teeth lean British — as well as a knack for physical comedy as he stumbles, Kramer-style, through Kate’s door.
TV already has plenty of New Modern Normal Families pleasing the ratings gods. Ultimately, “Ben and Kate” will depend on Faxon and the writers keeping Ben just short of maddening as he analyzes other men’s high-fiving abilities like a palm reader. Maybe Faxon looks relaxed because he doesn’t need this job — he won an Academy Award for co-writing “The Descendants.”
Kate (Dakota Johnson) is the exasperated voice of reason, but she lights up whenever Ben talks her into something ill-advised. Johnson is the daughter of Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith and looks radiant in Kate’s bar manager outfit and dorky fanny pack. With her messy blond clip-up hairdo, cute kid and nervous loneliness, things look full-on “Jerry Maguire” for her until her friends show up.
Flickering around the edges in the first half-hour is Tommy (Echo Kellum), nurturing a codependency with Ben and a long-simmering crush on Kate. The funniest part of the first “Ben and Kate” is Lucy Punch as BJ, a British bartender with a sharp tongue and raw advice on ending a sexual slump. If you’ve seen the BBC version of “Coupling” — and you really should — Punch channels that show’s nutty, narcissistic, vamp Jane (Gina Bellman, now on “Leverage”).
BJ is featured in a lot of the lightning-fast, edgy banter that keeps this nontraditional family from getting too cute for its own good. “Ben and Kate” starts out heavy on warm fuzzies, but it balances darker scenes of siblings bonding tightly to survive a childhood of conflict and neglect.
Kate dealt with that by growing up too young. Ben gets through by staying a kid forever. He’s most endearing with 5-year-old niece Maddie, a seriously adorable Maggie Elizabeth Jones, who shows off subtle comic timing with her sighs and raised eyebrows.
Dana Fox has decades of brotherly stories to exploit as Ben moves back to town to help take care of Maddie. With direction from Jake Kasdan, an Emmy nominee for “New Girl,” those should be good times. Maybe we’ll get to see Kate let her hair down, even if it is just in flashbacks.
Mindy Lahiri has been known to let her hair down a little too much. She will be instantly recognized as that one friend who starts every week taking the stairs because she’s on a diet, only to end it Sunday morning, hung over in front of a pile of Taco Bell. Ignoring all advice, she’s still trying to force a series of one-night stands into something real.
She has her own OB/GYN practice, but she doesn’t feel successful. She just wants a real boyfriend. The chance to have kids. Patients with insurance. In the absence of any of these, Mindy will have four vodka sodas.
Kelly Kapoor, Kaling’s epically shallow character on “The Office,” once named six romantic comedies while explaining the concept of Netflix. In Kaling’s book, “Is Everybody Hanging Out Without Me?” she confirms that her rom-com obsession is very real, and she returns to it in the opening montage of “The Mindy Project.”
After seeing her grow up on a diet of Hugh Grant and Renee Zellweger, it’s no surprise that Mindy quickly veers into a less apologetic, more alcohol-soaked version of Bridget Jones, like the hot mess from Helen Fielding’s books. Instead of sassy singleton friends, Mindy gets stuck with her ditzy receptionists, what Bridget would have called a “smug married” friend, and competitive colleague Danny, infamous for instigating a fistfight over a Mellencamp T-shirt at a Springsteen show.
When a shifty player or an arrogant jerk could be The One in disguise, “The Mindy Project” veers into Jane Austen-style simplicity. Kaling helps keep Dr. Lahiri compelling as she narrates like Carrie Bradshaw would have if she’d ever navigated a real workweek. Another “Sex and the City” trait: Comedians like Ed Helms will make weekly cameos alongside pro athletes.
Kaling pings race, drinking and her weight right off the bat without getting lazy or obvious. This Mindy is more forceful with her neuroses than passive-aggressive Kelly, and the only one who stands up to her silliness is Danny (Chris Messina). His arrogant demeanor is clearly disguising a need to dip Mindy’s ponytail in an inkwell.
In a way, Danny is the only friend who has Mindy’s back, partially because she hides the truth from her friends and intimidates her office staff. It’s up to Danny to speak up about her “Elton John on New Year’s Eve” first-date outfit, even if he does it like an obnoxious mansplainer.
Mindy’s questionable taste extends to the bedroom, of course, and her temptation comes with an accent. Jeremy (British comic Ed Weeks), another OB/GYN at the hospital, is open about what he wants from her. Sometimes, that’s enough. As she opens her door when Jeremy knocks late at night, it’s a portrait of hookup culture for thirtysomething professionals.
Mindy’s “trying to change” mask slips in other situations, too, much to the chagrin of buttoned-down confidant Gwen (Anna Camp of “The Help”), whose daughter gets a little whiny listening to their adult woes. “You’re
boring,” Mindy tells the kid. “Contribute something.”
With its emphasis on character rather than belly laughs, “The Mindy Project” feels more like an NBC show because it began its life there before being picked up by Fox. With introductions out of the way, the writers should let Mindy drop the pretense of her self-help pep talks and admit she’s not ashamed of how she’s living.
Because she’s not. As Mindy misbehaves yet again at the end of Tuesday’s episode, she slowly grins and the soundtrack turns up the volume on M.I.A., who’s singing “Live fast, die young, bad girls do it well.”Sitcom wars: How the new arrivals compare
|‘The Mindy Project’||‘Ben and Kate|
|BIG DATE DISASTER||Mindy overshares about her sexual past, then bails for a breech delivery. WINNER||Kate ends up with her bra exposed in public, yelling “Nobody look at me!”|
|THE EX’S WEDDING||Mindy gets drunk, gets up to give a speech, gets inappropriate and gets arrested. WINNER||Ben crashes with a mooching entourage, but he’s too disorganized to ruin much.|
|STALKER TENDENCIES||Mindy researches blind dates online and sneaks smartphone pics of the office hottie.||Ben calls his ex-girlfriend “Mrs. Ben Fox” and takes his niece to peep in her windows. WINNER|
|EVERYBODY IN THE POOL||Mindy ends up submerged in a metallic green party dress, chastised by a Bratz doll. WINNER||Kate once almost drowned after being pushed in by Ben, who calls the prank “awesome.”|
|SEXY, AMORAL BRIT||Jeremy, another OB/GYN at the hospital, has an addiction to sex and “trashiness.”||Kate’s friend BJ coats a 5-year-old in makeup and does whiskey shots with priests. WINNER|
|ADORABLE KIDDOS||Mindy catches newborns for a living, and friend Gwen has a cute, petulant daughter.||Maddie memorizes elaborate cover stories before joining Uncle’s Ben’s adventures. WINNER|