[UPDATED] Fall Premieres 2012: FOX
With their Idol juggernaut weakening, and their efforts to replicate that success in the Fall with The X Factor proving more difficult than they imagined, FOX is still in search of the all-around schedule that will maintain their status as the number one network among young adults. While its most buzz-worthy drama waits until midseason, a new drama series and two new comedies seek to solidify their fall schedule, filling the hole left by House and building up the strength of a burgeoning Tuesday comedy block.
The Mob Doctor (Premiered 09/17/2012)
As a surgical resident, Grace Devlin (Jordana Spiro) has to live up to the expectations of her direct superiors, her patients, and their families, in addition to balancing the rest of her life (which includes dating Matt Saracen M.D.). Unlike most television doctors, though, the rest of her life also involves a debt to the mob, and the show promises to follow her struggle to use her doctoring skills to save the lives of her patients, her brother, and herself. [Myles McNutt]
Myles McNutt – University of Wisconsin-Madison
It’s easy to armchair develop The Mob Doctor after it debuted to disastrous ratings, vaulting to the front of the line in terms of “Shows Destined to be Cancelled” to the point that we’re already discussing its replacement. I discussed its low ratings with my students, and I learned two things: that its title welcomes a certain degree of ridicule in and of itself, and that almost none of my students seemed to know it existed.
Perhaps that’s because it’s not exactly clear whom this show is for. The medical procedural element seems undercooked, while the mob element is more interesting but enters the story at the wrong point. Rather than showing us what Grace’s brother did to get in trouble with the mafia, giving us the connection necessary to care about his fate and invested in Grace’s decision, we join her arrangement in media res. While the arrangement is “new” by the end of the episode, with Grace’s debt passed on from the deceased Moretti, that doesn’t mean that we didn’t need to see the beginning.
Lone Star, the last FOX series to debut to such low ratings (although with a stronger lead-in), had the same problem. The idea of a man living a double life may be a compelling structure for a series, but people won’t care about—and may in fact actively avoid—the show if they don’t understand why he made this decision. Capturing Grace’s turning point with the mafia—with her arrangement evolving from screwdrivers in the head to murdering a key prosecution witness on the operating table—may offer a more suspenseful narrative “event” for a pilot, but it doesn’t offer the development necessary to make me invested in any of the characters or the larger situation.
You can see the show laying the groundwork for serial mysteries, and the cast has a number of actors—Spiro, Zach Gilford, Zjelko Ivanek—that I feel are good here. It’s hard to talk potential, though, in light of the show’s imminent cancellation; I guess that’s the peril of joining a ratings narrative already in progress.
The Mindy Project (Premiered 09/25/2012)
The Mindy Project finds series creator/star Mindy Kaling in the world of medicine as she plays a “quirky” OB/GYN with a penchant for romantic comedies. While she attempts to find the ‘perfect man,’ she may just overlook plenty of connections with her hot-headed (and hot-bodied) co-worker (Chris Messina). [Drew Zolides]
Linde Murugan – Northwestern University
Despite her successful career as an OB/GYN, Mindy Lahiri is a bit of a mess. Rather than being bitter and single, though, she aims to get her life together by battling her penchants for casual sex and fantasies of ‘90s Meg Ryan.
Notably, this show is one of few network programs created by and starring a woman of color, the only precedents being Margaret Cho’s All American Girl and Wanda Sykes’s Wanda At Large. It is also one of the few recent comedies that star a woman of color as a leading character. Wanda at Large, Whoopi, and Ugly Betty are the only to do so since 2000, at least of the offerings by the four major broadcast networks. Yet, within this context, there is a complete absence of people of color in the supporting cast. Hopefully this changes as the season progresses, as it seems a little unbelievable that no co-worker, close friend, or love interest involved with Mindy would be of color.
Still, Kaling holds her own with a deadpan delivery and biting comebacks that convey a woman who is smart, sexy, wry, successful, and confident, if even a little frustrated and vulnerable at times. Like other ‘working girl’ shows, from That Girl to Ugly Betty, pleasure is found in watching the various costume changes. Though the lighting design downplays whatever medical seriousness the show could claim, the warm glows work to highlight Mindy’s dark brown skin as opposed to ‘whitewashing’ it out. This is quite refreshing, given the politics of shadism within the US but also in South Asia and throughout its diaspora.
In the absence of any explicit racial politics then, The Mindy Project offers us to imagine what Bridget Jones’s Diary would be like with a self-described “chubby” South Asian-American woman in the lead. Does it dismantle romantic comedies’ unproblematized championing of heteronormativity? No. In fact, every character is straight and cisgender, something that will also hopefully change. Yet, if this show means stylish outfits on a woman who I can actually relate to and looks like me and hearing M.I.A.’s “Bad Girls,” well, I can get behind that—at least enough to tune in to more episodes. Perhaps that sounds like shallow identity politics, but considering how the resurgence of young women on television has been wholly white (i.e. Girls, 2 Broke Girls, New Girl, Whitney), The Mindy Project is a welcome indulgence.
Liz Ellcessor – Indiana University
With the departure of The Office‘s Kelly Kapoor for Miami University (in Ohio), writer-producer-actress Mindy Kaling turns full time to her own sitcom. Developed for NBC, rejected, and then picked up and produced for FOX, the titular project would seem to be advancing our protagonist’s career and romantic life, as she recovers from a breakup, goes on a date (with a man played by Office co-star Ed Helms), and engages in push-and-pull banter and some friends-with-benefits antics with her two male coworkers.
Alternately, of course, the “project” appears to be Kaling’s. Leaving The Office, where she did excellent work writing episodes like “The Dundies” and “Niagara,” Kaling is now in the spotlight as star and producer of her own series, and is a rare woman of color to take that position in television comedy. Kaling’s character addresses her reputation among South Asian immigrants, and people without insurance, in the first episode, telling her staff she needs “more white patients?” in order to stay in practice. Yet, she continues to work with those who need but may not have the resources for medical care. Such attention to race, ethnicity, and the politics of health care are hardly par for the sitcom course, and are somewhat refreshing. Additionally, The Mindy Project carries over Kaling’s investment in the romantic comedy genre, and her smart-yet-silly voice as established through her social media use, 2011 memoir, and the numerous profiles of her that preceded this premiere. Kaling regularly veers between the frivolous and the serious, merging bravado and insecurity in ways that may result in the development of unusually three-dimensional and diverse characters on The Mindy Project.
Finally, watching the premiere, I was struck by a rare sense of recognition: from the tensions of career and romance to the incorporation of M.I.A. and Le Tigre on the soundtrack, The Mindy Project seems to directly hail an audience that resembles Kaling’s on- and off-screen personas – educated, female, and torn between life directions. I’ll be interested to see if such an audience emerges, and how The Mindy Project might shift in future episodes; either way, I’m on board.
Shilpa Davé – Brandeis University
Mindy Kaling is the first Indian American woman to headline her own show, The Mindy Project. The last Asian American woman to star in her own network comedy was Margaret Cho in All American-Girl (1994) and her show was cancelled after one year. Kaling’s experience in television should help her show, as she made great inroads in dispelling Indian stereotypes as the self absorbed, boy-crazy, customer relations’ representative Kelly Kapoor on The Office (2005-2012). Kaling has shown in her deft writing in her book and on The Office that diversity stereotypes are made to laughed at and made to be broken. Her new character is an OB/GYN physician, a professional woman more akin to comedians Mary Tyler Moore and Tina Fey (30 Rock). Her show and her character revolve around her work and her personal life, and has the ability to propel Kaling into a new category where her Indian-ness is not an exotic accent in a script but instead part of an everyday American narrative linked to working women comedies and television history.
South Asians have been appearing on American television programs with increasing frequency, but the characters are mostly young men who are a variation of Apu, such as the smart, foreign-looking, out-of-place, emasculated nerd who is always the sidekick and never the leader. Although Indian and Indian American women have appeared on television, their characters are often defined by their sexual desirability and exotic appeal. Kaling’s character acts as if being Indian is natural and part of her everyday life rather than emphasizing significant cultural traits. She does not speak with a foreign accent but ironically her rival/colleague physicians do— Dr. Jeremy Reed (British actor Ed Weeks) plays a Hugh Grant-like playboy physician with an English accent and Dr. Danny Castellano (Chris Messina) is the blunt rugged physician who speaks in a New Jersey tough guy inflected accent. Instead Dr. Mindy Lahiri is a talented and compassionate physician who dreams of love just like in the romantic comedies of Meg Ryan and Julia Roberts. Her miscues with dating and romance make her lovable and form the basis of the pilot but the first show also has comic moments that reference healthcare, race, and immigration. In The Mindy Project, the hope is that Kaling will continue to clear the way for women of color on television that move beyond sexual objects and exotic sidekicks, showcasing Indian Americans and Asian Americans in a variety of roles in American culture.
Ben and Kate (Premiered 09/25/2012)
Deadbeat parents fostered Ben and Kate’s sibling bond at an early age, but two decades later Kate’s become a responsible parent while Ben’s stuck in an extended adolescence. Hijinks ensue when Ben decides to move in and resume his big brother role, pledging to help raise Kate’s five year old daughter. Two hilarious best friend sidekicks complete this relatively unknown cast of five in a Fox comedy that comes from the producers and director of New Girl. [Sarah Murray]
Sarah Murray – University of Wisconsin-Madison
The richness with which a sibling relationship can imbue a text makes it a tried-and-true narrative formula, while failure to translate the banality of a sibling relationship always stands to threaten storytelling’s vitality. Ben and Kate, Fox’s half-hour single cam comedy from the producers and director of New Girl, straddles an amiable in-between space that encourages watching beyond the pilot. Not quite mundane, not quite nuanced, the show nevertheless manages to tap into the uneasy hilarity that comes with the permanence of family. It’s easy to relate to Kate’s (Dakota Johnson) resistance to her brother’s (Ben, played by Nat Faxon) kind-hearted foolishness because we’re working just as hard to resist the charm of this show’s refusal to take itself too seriously. While the shenanigans are predictable, the vague familiarity of the underexposed cast gives the show an open, inviting feel (you might know Nat Faxon from Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story or for his Oscar award winning adapted screenplay of The Descendants, and Dakota Johnson from 21 Jump Street). Beyond the show’s graceful display of life’s clumsiness, it’s actually funny. Kate’s best friend BJ (Lucy Punch) has a bulldozing brand of literal comedy that is smartly written into her scenes with Kate’s earnest five-year-old daughter, Maddie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones). Time will tell on whether Ben’s best friend Tommy (Echo Kellum) will be given dimension, although there are hints that he’ll play a role in a romantic subplot with Kate. Contrary to the will-they-won’t-they narrative arc that lives and dies on sexual tension, the beauty of the sibling duo lies in its potential for longevity. If the showrunners can manage to differentiate Ben from New Girl‘s Jess (Zooey Deschanel), Ben and Kate may leave a dent, although it’s unlikely it will manage to imprint on us the way a sibling does.
Phil Scepanski – Northwestern University
Ben and Kate bases its central dynamic around a pair who are forced together despite seemingly incompatible personalities. Impulsive, emotional, and living in the short term, Ben represents the Oscar/Laverne/Id archetype while his comparatively level-headed sister Kate plays the complementary Felix/Shirley/Ego. Drifting into town to romantically but haplessly disrupt his ex-girlfriend’s wedding, Ben stumbles into his sister’s more sensible attempt to negotiate a budding long-term relationship. Of course, the long-term sibling relationship demonstrates its true value over romantic ones and provides a setup for more weekly conflicts and resolutions.
But formula is in the genre’s nature. Gags, performances, and other more varied elements often make or break sitcoms. To this end, Ben and Kate does well. Ben’s childishness is a vulnerable—rather than psychopathic—one, and Nat Faxon’s expressive performance balances the goofy and pathetic elements of his character well. Similarly, while more strictly rule-bound versions of the Odd Couple dynamic would make Kate distant and unresponsive, Dakota Johnson does extremely well playing a frazzled character who aspires to, but cannot fully perform, a type A personality. Supporting characters vary more widely, with somewhat broadly-drawn wacky sidekicks played with varying comic abilities and a deadpan child seemingly drawn from the ranks of Wes Anderson films.
I enjoyed the show, but other than that Ben was moving in with Kate and her daughter, it was not clear precisely where the series was headed. This episode seemed to address some rather big crises in both main character’s lives, and it is difficult to imagine Ben interrupting a wedding every week. But if it focuses too much on daily minutiae, it may rob these actors of the reason to continue their quality performances. I plan to keep watching, but we shall see whether the promise of this first episode proves unsustainable.