Television shows are evolving organisms, which is one of the most exciting things about them, but also one of the scariest. Mediocre pilots can one day lead to great series, and vice versa. Brilliant shows can abruptly fall off a cliff, and mediocrities can stun you with leaps forward. Characters can die, settings can be abandoned, and even genres aren't sacrosanct. You just never know.
One day an earnest, boring show about twentysomethings trying to make it in the big city can import Heather Locklear and turn into a gleefully trashy soap opera about the apartment complex of the damned. Or a black comic farce about the Korean War can take a more serious tone as it ages and various actors and producers come and go. Or a riveting thriller about a terrorist sleeper agent and the bipolar CIA agent chasing him can fall apart by keeping the sleeper agent alive much too long.
With that in mind, I try not to pass final judgment on any show too quickly, to keep checking in when I can to see if promising raw material might have turned into something more, to see if a show I had written off at pilot stage like “The Neighbors” could turn in an episode as delightful as its musical outing “Sing Like A Larry Bird,” or just to find out which doctors at Seattle Grace are still alive at this point, and whether I still care as a result. The problem, of course, is that we are living in the unintended side effect of TV's new Golden Age – the Golden Glut of interesting shows to keep up with. So my trigger finger's a lot itchier than it used to be, and some shows get the “That's it for me!” treatment after only an episode or two. I think back on a show like “Buffy,” that took most of its first season to find itself, and wonder if I'd have the patience to wait for the greatness if it debuted today.
Sometimes, though, I'll keep up with a show that's not working for me, usually out of a combination of faith in the creative team based on past work and signs that it's only a tweak or two from realizing its potential. And occasionally, that patience gets rewarded the way it was by the new episodes of “The Mindy Project” and “Veep” debuting over the next few weeks. (“Mindy” is back tonight at 9 & 9:30 on FOX, “Veep” on Sunday at 10:30 on HBO.)
Both are shows that seemed perfect on paper. Mindy Kaling wrote many of the funniest episodes of “The Office” (including the funniest episode, “The Injury”) and as both writer and performer had demonstrated a very sharp and distinct comic voice, and had a good premise in the idea of a woman who had based too many of her life decisions on the lessons learned from romantic comedies. “Veep,” meanwhile, had acidic British satirist Armando Ianucci – whose “The Thick Of It” is among the most uncomfortably hilarious shows to ever originate on that side of the pond – coming to our shores and teaming up with the great Julia Louis-Dreyfus to play a fictional, completely ineffectual vice-president. And though both have gotten ardent support from other critics, they mostly frustrated me until recently.
I found “The Mindy Project” too frantic, not only in the way it kept eliminating characters and introducing new ones – the straw that broke this camel's back was the arrival of Adam Pally, whom I'd loved on “Happy Endings,” playing an obnoxious bro who joined Mindy's OB/GYN practice, giving the cast at least one character too many, and an annoying one at that – but in the way that it kept trying on new identities for both Mindy and the show itself. Some weeks, Mindy was a functional adult; in others, a borderline insane person who had somehow wrangled herself a medical degree. Mindy the producer not only kept shaking up the supporting cast, but cycling love interests on and off so quickly that only a few of the relationships (notably with Anders Holm as minister-turned-DJ Casey) felt like anything but placeholders for the moment when Mindy and grouchy partner Danny Castellano (Chris Messina) would hook up, as the rules of TV romantic comedies would dictate.
“Veep,” meanwhile, established itself as a show whose point of view is that all politicians are craven opportunists who believe in nothing but their own advancement, and that nothing ever gets accomplished as a result. It's not an unfair angle, but it's such a deeply cynical one that, when combined with the hollowness of all the regular characters, meant that the series had an incredibly high comedy bar to clear. You can say that your subject matter is pointless and your characters are all sociopathic bumblers, but then you have to be insanely funny to keep me interested. “The Thick of It” pulled that off, thanks mainly to the astonishing profanity of Peter Capaldi's Malcolm Tucker; with no character on that level, and with Louis-Dreyfus' Selina Meyer a frustrated but mild blank, “Veep” did not.
Ianucci started to course correct at the start of the second season, when Selina went from a marginalized figurehead to an important member of the president's team, because she was popular at a moment when he wasn't. It's not that Selina was suddenly good at her job – she and her staffers were bungling just as much as ever – but that it resonated more now that it was on a bigger stage, with bigger stakes. Jokes about the VP being the most powerless person in America are almost as old as America itself – Person In Unimportant Job Is Unimportant – but now Selina's gaffes were having genuine consequences, and that not only made things more interesting but made Selina both cockier in success and angrier in failure, which gave Louis-Dreyfus so much more to play.
Still, it wasn't until the last couple of episodes of last season that “Veep” really started living up to its potential. When it became clear that the current administration was going down in flames over a scandal, Selina decided she'd had enough and would refuse to run for re-election as VP, instead waiting six years to run as president. It was by far the most human moment Louis-Dreyfus had had on the show so far, and pulling Selina back from the edges of cartoonhood – especially when so many of the supporting characters (particularly Tony Hale's creepy-close body man Gary, Matt Walsh's sad-sack press secretary Mike and Timothy C. Simons' grotesque White House aide Jonah) already live happily and humorously in two dimensions – only made her comic moments pop some more as she discovered that POTUS was going to decline to run, giving her the inside track for the nomination within two years.
The new season picks up with Selina and her team making preliminary campaign plans, frustrated that they've had to wait months for POTUS to make things official, and it continues the upward creative trajectory. The closer Selina has gotten to genuine power, the funnier and smarter “Veep” has become. It's forced Ianucci to bring in real political issues – not so he can preach about them, but simply to give greater weight to all of the jokes about how politicians' beliefs (if they have any to begin with) take a backseat to political reality. The second episode finds Selina's team trying desperately to come up with a position on abortion that will outdo her closest rival, and the conversation eventually starts to sound like strategizing from Contestants Row on “The Price Is Right.” Episode 3, meanwhile, is a comic marvel told mostly from the point of view of a universal childcare advocate who's brought in to be part of Selina announcing her candidacy, then gets a rude lesson in 21st Century political realities. The show's as cynical as ever, but it doesn't feel nearly as empty. Selina's more of an actual character – and has become an accomplished slinger of four-letter verbiage in her own right – and even if the team's screw-ups remain inevitable, the ways in which they screw up feel far less predictable.
The improvements made to “Veep” feel sustainable. I'm less certain that the two extremely funny “Mindy” episodes tonight represent a permanent jump up in quality rather than an erratic show getting things together in small bursts. “Mindy” has done some excellent episodes in the past, after all, before getting distracted by some shiny new character.
That said, many of the things that are effective here seem repeatable. In particular, Mindy and Danny trying to be a couple – they kissed on an airplane in the most recent episode, after he helped her compose an email trying to reconcile with her estranged laywer boyfriend Cliff (Glen Howerton) – works out much better in practice than it seemed to in theory when the show kept hinting at their One True Pairing in earlier episodes. Prematurely old man Danny has been the show's most consistent, best-defined characters, and even if I wasn't cheering for them to get together, it's a very funny combination, and it significantly tightens the focus and vision of the show. And though some of the complications that rise up – including the matter of Cliff still having feelings for Mindy – are rom-com clichés, they work because this is a show that's usually been at its best when Mindy gets trapped in the kinds of situations that crop up time and again in the movies she loves.
Heck, they've even humanized the Pally character just enough that I no longer constantly question his employment and get to enjoy watching him bounce off of the others.
Between these two shows, tonight's return of Comedy Central's wonderful sketch series “Inside Amy Schumer” and the Sunday debut of HBO's terrific new “Silicon Valley” (more on that later in the week), it's an outstanding week for comedy all-around, and also a reminder that even in the age of the Golden Glut of programming, patience can be rewarded.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org