On last week’s phenomenal episode of FX’s “Louie,” director David Lynch played a veteran talk show producer training Louie for a shot at succeeding David Letterman. At one point, Lynch needs proof that Louie is actually funny, and demands that Louie make him laugh on the count of 3. Louie flinches once, then twice, and Lynch warns him that the next countdown will be the last, and Louie wins a reprieve by bursting into a string of falsetto nonsense that in no way resembles his actual comic style, but pleases Lynch. It’s not until later in the episode that Louie finally relaxes and gets the confidence to be as funny on-camera as he knows he can be.
There are times when I watch sitcom pilots and feel very much like the Lynch character: I want to laugh, and I want to laugh now, and if you can’t make me do that, why am I wasting my time on you? But like Louie in that episode, it’s not always so simple. Some new comedies burst onto the scene fully-formed, where their debut episodes are not only incredibly funny, but representative of what the series is going to be long-term. “Arrested Development” was like that; so was “Modern Family.” But more often, great comedies come from more humble beginnings. The first season of “Parks and Recreation” was a mess, and now it’s one of the best shows on television. The pilot of “The Office” is pretty terrible, and we know what that show became in time.
Sometimes, even a good start isn’t enough. Look at FOX’s “New Girl,” one of last season’s bigger comedy successes. It debuted with a very funny episode that hung nearly all of the laughs on Zooey Deschanel’s quirky persona, then went through the inevitable growing pains of most new shows before finding a balance where the jokes were more evenly, successfully distributed between Deschanel, Max Greenfield and Jake Johnson. As the series returns tomorrow night with new episodes at 8 and 9, it’s a confident, funny one that has largely figured itself out (though Lamorne Morris’s Winston remains frustratingly tangential).
So when I look at “Ben and Kate” and “The Mindy Project” – the two new FOX comedies that are debuting alongside these new “New Girl”s tomorrow at 8:30 and 9:30, respectively – I can’t just do some simple arithmetic about how much each pilot made me laugh. (Each did, but only sporadically.) It’s a more elaborate calculus about whether these feel like they have the raw material and the voice to become really good.
And I think both do.
“Ben and Kate” stars Nat Faxon (one of the three Oscar-winning screenwriters of “The Descendants”) and Dakota Johnson as the eponymous siblings, who had to raise each other amid their parents’ crumbling marriage, and are each other’s support system in adult life. Kate grew up too fast as single mom to Maddie (Maggie Jones), while Ben never grew up at all, and randomly parachutes into his sister’s life to wreak havoc. When we meet him in the pilot episode, he disrupts her date with a handsome prospect, wearing a hockey mask and explaining, “I was stealing cable from your neighbor. I didn’t want her to recognize me.”
The show’s creator, Dana Fox, was a writer on “New Girl” last season, and based the central relationship on the one she has with her own brother Ben. At the Television Critics Association summer press tour, she charmed the assembled reporters with tales of the real-life Ben’s misadventures, and there’s an obvious warmth and specificity to the way the siblings interact even as they work through familiar sitcom tropes like the wedding that has to be crashed or the boyfriend who isn’t quite what he seems. Jones also brings the precocious-yet-natural quality she had in “We Bought a Zoo,” creating a sweet, believable, oddball family unit.
I instantly liked all three characters. I just didn’t find them incredibly funny in this first outing. There are stray laughs here and there – a number of them from Lucy Punch as Kate’s inappropriate best friend BJ, who gives her dating advice like “Draw attention to your mouth. Constantly.” – but the first episode is more of a pleasant experience that holds the promise of something better down the road.
“The Mindy Project” is the more overtly comic pilot. This shouldn’t be a surprise, as it was created by and stars Mindy Kaling, who was responsible for several of the most laugh-out-loud “Office” episodes ever (she wrote “The Injury,” the one where Michael cooks his foot on a Foreman grill) and was a reliable source of on-camera humor as Kelly Kapoor, the shallow, celebrity-obsessed Dunder Mifflin customer service rep.
Here, Kaling is Mindy Lahiri, a young obstetrician who has unfortunately chosen to make most of her life choices based on the unreliable lessons of popular culture.
“You have an idea of how your life is going to turn out,” Mindy tells us in the series’ opening moments, a montage of her growing up in front of the television. “When I was a kid, all I did was watch romantic comedies in my living room while I did my homework. In high school, Tom Hanks was my first boyfriend.”
As an adult, she has a classic movie-style meet-cute with a handsome dentist (Bill Hader from “SNL,” one of several notable pilot guest stars) in a malfunctioning elevator, and she’s overcome with the way her life is imitating her favorite kind of art.
“No way! It’s happening!” she whispers, practically on the verge of a seizure.
But life isn’t quite like a romantic comedy – even if you’re a character on a sitcom yourself, and one who gets thrown into a love triangle involving two other doctors in the practice: English bad boy Jeremy Reed (Ed Weeks) and earthy tough guy Danny Castellano (Chris Messina). Sometimes, Mindy sabotages herself. Other times, life gets in the way. And sometimes, the two combine and she winds up riding a stolen bicycle into a swimming pool and having an argument with an underwater Barbie doll.
“Your life is not a romantic comedy,” her best friend Gwen (Anna Camp) insists. “Right now ,it seems more like a sad documentary about a criminally insane spinster.”
“It kind of sounds like I could win an Oscar, though,” Mindy says, looking on the bright side of things.
The idea of a romantic comedy about a woman obsessed with romantic comedies is both clever and one that may be tricky to pull off. Making a character aware of a cliché – say, that Mindy is another female series lead who is a mess in her personal life but great at her job – doesn’t automatically make the cliché fresh again.
But as with “Ben and Kate,” Kaling’s voice – usually the most important thing to listen for in any comedy pilot – rings through, and it sounds like she’s smart enough to avoid some of the pitfalls. When I interviewed her at press tour, for instance, she said the show is going to very quickly move away from the “Bridget Jones”-style Mindy/Jeremy/Danny triangle and focus more on how Mindy and Danny do and don’t get along. That’s smart not just because it’s unexpected, but because Messina’s performance and Kaling’s writing make Danny into a character as distinct and funny as Mindy herself.
(He’s also just as fixated on pop culture in his own way. When she mocks him for getting into a fight at a Bruce Springsteen concert, he takes instant offense and tells her, “First of all, it’s ‘a Springsteen show,’ not ‘a Bruce Springsteen concert.’ You sound ignorant.”)
There are a few rough patches – a blind date gone awry scene (with Kaling’s old “Office” co-star Ed Helms) pushes Mindy’s behavior to the point where she seems unstable rather than just neurotic – but overall, “The Mindy Project” is a comedy that arrives knowing what it wants to be and what kinds of stories and jokes it wants to tell.
If you’re expecting an instant-classic sitcom pilot this fall, you’ll be disappointed. If you’re looking for two rookies with the potential to become great in time, these are your two best bets.
NOTE: The code for our grading system doesn’t allow for multiple grades on one review, so let’s say that I give “Ben and Kate” a B and “The Mindy Project” a B+.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org