Fall TV Pilot Watch, Part 2: Now for some things completely different

NBC and Fox continue to offer advance looks at their shows via Hulu, so I’ll continue to write these early. Enjoy.

This year, I’m trying to group my mini-pilot reviews by some sort of recognizable theme or category, insomuch as that’s possible. When I saw that both “The Mindy Project” and “Ben and Kate” were up for viewing, I thought, Perfect! New, youthful Fox Tuesday programming! By pairing the shows with the new-ish “New Girl” and “Raising Hope,” the network appears to be positioning a two-hour comedy block that has legs to last.

Then I saw that “The New Normal” had also popped up for streaming. I thought I was stuck, but upon watching NBC’s new comedy, I realized that the three shows had a surprising number of similarities. For one thing, all three of them rely on the increasingly annoying prop of inconsistent narration (if you’re going to do it, do it “Arrested Development” or “How I Met Your Mother” style!). For another thing, two of the shows’ pilots featured the crashing of a wedding, and two of them featured spunky blond women who were impregnated at a young age and now have precocious daughters, and whose boyfriends are cheating on them at the beginning of the episode.

But, thematically, all of them featured, in one way or another, non-traditionalism.

The Mindy Project

FOX, 8:30 p.m. Central Tuesdays, Comedy

Would Watch Again? No

Unlike the other two shows in this article, who are playing up the “isn’t this out of the ordinary” factor of their family relationships, this show from former “Office” scribe and actor Mindy Kaling (who writes and stars) is refreshingly comfortable with its unique position of being a mainstream sitcom with an Indian American star. Kaling simply gets down to the business of showing that she can carry her own show about a single obstetrician trying to have it all in this crazy world.

And she definitely can carry her own show, comporting herself with a comic assuredness that suggests a history of starring roles. Unfortunately, that’s about where my positivity on “The Mindy Project” ends. The name “Bridget Jones” has been thrown around a lot in relation to “The Mindy Project,” and that’s not unearned. The titular Mindy is obsessed with romcoms, melts like butter in the presence of the steamy British doctor at her hospital and is ashamedly materialistic. The show’s recognizance of its lead’s moral crassness makes the proceedings slightly better, but the overall result seems like pandering to a fandom FOX apparently believes will watch while popping chocolates and wearing pajamas.

“The Mindy Project” is far from lifeless. Kaling is a skilled entertainer (an unexpected white privilege joke in particular roused a chuckle), and Chris Messina does decent work as Mindy’s frenemy Danny. Unfortunately, the strong likelihood that one of the characters will eventually use the word “frenemy” unironically makes it a bit too vacuous for my taste.

Ben and Kate

FOX, 7:30 p.m. Central Tuesdays, Comedy

Would Watch Again? No

“Ben and Kate” is perfectly fine. It’s unassuming, there are no overly sassy or whip-smart characters, and I actually found its requisite oddball ancillary player (Lucy Punch as B.J.) relatively amusing. I’m cool with it existing, but I did not feel compelled to see any more of it than its pilot.

The premise is simple: practical single mom and bar manager Kate (Dakota Johnson) has her world put into gentle disarray by wacky, never-thinking-ahead older brother Ben (Nat Faxon), who moves back to town to help her raise her daughter and create wacky situations. They’re joined in their ill-defined misadventures by Punch’s character and Echo Kellum’s Tommy, Ben’s friend and a frequent bar patron who has a crush on Kate.

“Ben and Kate” is perfectly competent, and there are a few laughs to be had. The actors have chemistry. I don’t want to blast the show; it’s doing a gentle comedy that some will likely find enjoyable. I just wasn’t engaged.

The New Normal

NBC, 8:30 p.m. Central Tuesdays, Comedy

Will Watch Again? No.

For a moment, let’s put aside “who’s right” in the many facets of debate about gay marriage, gay rights, and homosexuality in general. There’s a way to deal well with competing moral points of view on a sitcom (see – usually – the treatment of Shirley on “Community”), and, if you don’t want to have that kind of conversation, there are graceful ways of establishing your worldview as predominant.

“The New Normal,” unfortunately, knows nothing of gracefulness, comedically or otherwise.

First of all, the show – about a gay couple who welcomes the surrogate mother of their child into their family – isn’t very funny, with approximately one good crack in the pilot episode (a clever Simon and Garfunkel-related interplay). The overall story is pretty boring, with an opening heartfelt monologue being the only redeeming quality, and by the time I got around to watching the show I was pretty tired of hearing about the self-possessed single girl who wants more out of her life. What I’m saying is that I wouldn’t have liked “The New Normal” with or without its biggest flaw.

But gosh, that is a big flaw: this show is so. Dang. Preachy. Everything about it is so indulgently, narcissistically self-righteous, from its title to its straw man elderly over-the-top anti-gay character to an actual scene from the show in which multiple characters directly address the audience about their non-traditional family structures like some sort of corny PSA, only to be bookended (in case you didn’t get it) by a reference to Barack Obama’s out-of-the-ordinary upbringing and the statement “abnormal is the new normal” by one of the star homosexual characters – one who originally is presented as desiring a baby in the same way he would desire a fashion accessory, so it’s not like the show is doing great at creating three-dimensional gay characters, either.

Sorry, that was a terrible run-on sentence. But, no matter your politics, it wasn’t as bad as watching the pilot for “The New Normal.”

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