In TV comedy, there's a fine line between the delightfully quirky and the annoyingly irksome, and Fox's Tuesday night lineup — now home to four half-hour sitcoms, forcing Glee's move to Thursdays — tap-dances around and over that line with reckless abandon. My advice: surrender and enjoy.
Not such a hard task when the shows are as enjoyable as the raucous Raising Hope (which starts its third season next week) and the brazenly silly New Girl (which begins its second season tonight with two episodes, including one in Hope's time period). Joining the fun starting tonight: the charmingly offbeat Ben and Kate and The Mindy Project, the more-tart-than-sweet vehicle for new "it girl" auteur Mindy Kaling, formerly of The Office.
Ben and Kate (8:30/9:30c) hasn't enjoyed as much early buzz as Mindy, but I'm thinking this mismatched-sibling sitcom could be a sleeper hit. Much will depend on whether the audience is as eager to indulge the endearingly fatuous Peter Pan doofus Ben Fox (Nat Faxon) as his younger sister, single-mom Kate (Dakota Johnson), does. (This relationship is inspired by series creator Dana Fox's own family ties with her older brother, also named Ben.)
Together, they'll be raising Kate's cute — but not yet too cute — 5-year-old daughter Maddie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones), although it often feels more like Kate is raising two kids, one of them an adult who hasn't yet grown up. Ben's a free spirit, impulsive and still prone to fits of childish petulance and wonder. (Watch him tear into a babysitter who tries to force Maddie to "color inside the lines.") Kate is the responsible one, but needs to loosen up — especially when it comes to dating, and her klutzy, anxious misadventures in the romance department promise to be as wacky and embarrassing as any of the mischief Ben gets up to. And because every comedy needs scene-stealing sidekicks (see: New Girl's Schmidt), Ben and Kate gives us two: the sensational Lucy Punch as the lusty, funky BJ — her seduction tips for Kate and prickly disdain for the rugrat Maddie won me over instantly — and Echo Kellum as Ben's buddy Tommy, whose primary initial character trait is a deep and unrequited crush on Kate.
The characters, like the show, send off an ingratiatingly kooky vibe, and I look forward to getting to know them better.
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If The Mindy Project's pilot episode (9:30/8:30c) is a messier affair, that only makes sense, because Mindy herself is a mess. A hot, wild and crazy mess. As Mindy Lahiri, an OB-GYN who can't understand why her life hasn't turned out like the Meg Ryan rom-coms she grew up and still obsesses on, Kaling makes for an unconventional sitcom heroine, to put it mildly. She's snarky and abrasive — "a rapist of peace and quiet," a surly cop calls her after she's arrested for being drunk and disorderly — and even her best friend (the always-welcome Anna Camp) considers Mindy a "high-risk" set-up. (A first date with former Office co-star Ed Helms is a perfect illustration of that.)
As creator/writer, show-runner and star, Kaling delights in showing Mindy in the worst possible light as often as possible. Her drunken nose-dive into a pool, after causing a scene at her ex's wedding, is just the start. She makes horrible decisions, including shedding her scrubs for co-worker Jeremy (Ed Weeks), a willfully promiscuous stud of a British doc who says he likes it when she looks trashy. Sparks also fly, though not of the sexual kind (yet), between Mindy and another doc, Danny (Chris Messina), who's aggressively competitive and just-plain-rude — but not without appeal. Could they be heading for a rom-com hookup and a happily ever after? I wouldn't count on it.
As Mindy's pal warns her, she's no Katherine Heigl (thank goodness), and her life seems "more a sad documentary about a criminally insane spinster." A description that doesn't faze Mindy, instead causing her to muse that it "kinda sounds like I'd win an Oscar." Let's start with the Emmys, shall we, or possibly a Golden Globe. They let you drink at that one.
And now, some sophomore-season thoughts on New Girl, starting with the first episode (8/7c), which delivers Jess (Zooey Deschanel) a life-changing setback and Schmidt (Max Greenfield) a chance to "re-brand" himself after a hiatus spent in crotch plaster. (Don't ask.) Watching the roomies rally around Jess is always heart-warming, even when she warns them, "No pity eyes." Telling these boys to act normal falls on deaf ears, though, because what's normal to this gang, anyway? Stay tuned for a terrific guest spot by Parker Posey (on a roll after this summer's Louie heartbreaker) as a rival "shot girl" at Nick's bar. But I confess I'm a bit worried when a breakout character like Schmidt — a role that should have earned Greenfield an Emmy — begins talking about being a "brand." (A fear exacerbated by the recent publication of a Schmidt book tie-in, The Douche Journals.) Therein lies the road to dangerous J.J.-on-Good Times level self-indulgence. Schmidt literally is playing with fire by the end of the episode, which I'm hoping isn't a metaphor for burning out too soon
Not to fear, because the more inspired second episode (9:30/8:30c) spreads the wealth nicely, as Jess gets caught up in several levels of romantic mistaken identity — involving a hunk (David Walton of NBC's blink-and-you-missed-it Bent) who thinks she's someone else, and a set-up with the wrong beer-delivery dude (Book of Mormon's Josh Gad) — while Nick (Jake Johnson) is freaked out by a barfly (Raymond J. Barry, aka Raylan's dad on Justified) who claims to be his future self and Schmidt tries to win over Winston's pro-athlete sister, but first he'll have to get past their dragon-lady mom (Anna Maria Horsford). As the first season figured out, New Girl works best as an ensemble comedy, and it's great to have it back.
JACKPOT: "You don't look like the law," says a biker who's just been knocked off his ride on the main strip of Las Vegas by rancher-turned-sheriff Ralph Lamb. "I've been hearing that," Lamb responds, scowling from under his cowboy hat after climbing down off his horse, an anachronism amid the glittery neon. (Is it pure coincidence that a vandalizing "Wild Bunch" turns up on a new show airing opposite FX's red-hot Sons of Anarchy? Just asking.)
The central figure of CBS' evocative new Western/crime drama hybrid Vegas (10/9c), Ralph is based on the real-life local legend Lamb, and is brought to life by Dennis Quaid (his first series lead) in a charismatic performance that positions him as the network's next potential breakout star, a great fit on a night headlined by NCIS' Mark Harmon. Lamb is cut from Jethro cloth: a gruff lion, a rugged curmudgeon who'd rather be tending his herd than dealing with skeevy politicians, district attorneys and an invading force of mobsters (including Michael Chiklis as the just-off-the-plane Chicago kingpin Vincent Savino) who are looking to make the new gambling mecca of '60s Vegas their playground.
This being CBS, there will always be crimes to be solved, and the opportunistic mayor (Michael O'Neill, who once shot up Seattle Grace on a Grey's Anatomy cliffhanger) wants Ralph for the job, having witnessed his prowess as an MP during WWII. At least Lamb, a widower, has help taking down bad guys from family, including his less combustible brother (Terra Nova's Jason O'Mara) and his wayward Baby Casanova of a son (Taylor Handley). The appealing cast also includes Carrie-Ann Moss as an assistant DA who grew up on a neighboring ranch, newly returned from New York because "I missed the dust." Which flies frequently when the bare-knuckled Lamb gets busy.
Unlike last year's short-lived '60s experiments, The Playboy Club and Pan Am, this series isn't obsessed with the period at the expense of story and character. Vegas uses the changing times to its advantage, with Lamb representing an old guard fuming against the noisy aircraft that rattle his cattle and the gangsters upending the status quo. It's a solid premise executed with the usual CBS professionalism. I wouldn't bet against this one joining the network's stable of long-running hits.
Speaking of which, CBS' top-rated NCIS (8/7c) opens its 10th season with Gibbs on a crusade, proceeding with "Extreme Prejudice" (the episode's title) to pursue the vengeful and crafty Harper Dearing (Richard Schiff), who blew up NCIS headquarters in last season's cliffhanger. It won't be the last explosive event to occur during the manhunt. "He hurt my family," the steely Gibbs growls, meaning business, while Abby whimpers, "I want good back." Just having NCIS back will make Tuesdays feel good again for millions of fans. ... Meanwhile, NCIS: LA (9/8c, CBS, not previewed) starts its fourth season with Callen suspended and Hetty retired. Wonder how long that will last.
PARKS AND WRECK: Imagine a cartoon world where Yogi Bear does unspeakable things to Boo-Boo, and then run the opposite direction. Comedy Central's comedically stunted and cheaply offensive Brickleberry (Comedy Central, 10:30/9:30c), set in a twisted version of a Jellystone-style national park, is a new 'toon that feels like a vanity reward for executive producer Daniel Tosh (whose hit Tosh.0 this is paired with). It mimics Seth MacFarlane's style of grotesque non-sequitur tastelessness — in quick succession, there are lame gags involving AIDS, the KKK, a vibrator, and bodily or animal fluids of various sorts. Plus a manipulative talking bear designed as this show's Stewie. A recurring joke of finding new ways to mutilate or kill Smokey ("only you can prevent ...") is ripped off from the South Park and Itchy & Scratchy playbook. The main characters are bumbling and boorish park rangers who might seem funny to someone who's been lost in the woods for the last decade. All others are advised to wait a night for the return of the real deal, South Park, to which this not only owes a huge creative debt but possibly also royalties.
WHAT ELSE IS ON? Another strong episode of NBC's The New Normal (9:31/8:31c) dares to challenge the smug convictions of its armchair-liberal gay heroes, as the "blonde Imperial Wizard" Nana (Ellen Barkin) calls the guys out on their lily-white lifestyle, and all assumptions about politics, race, gender and choice are fodder for barbed, topical comedy. ... Another round of political musical chairs on the entertainment talk shows, as President and Mrs. Obama drop by ABC's The View (check tvguide.com listings) and Ann Romney pays The Tonight Show a visit. ... Katie (check tvguide.com listings) welcomes Barbra Streisand for a rare sit-down, the sort of "get" we used to count on Oprah for. ... This is why fast-forward was invented: ABC's Dancing With the Stars (8/7c) will take two hours to eliminate the first "all-star" contestant, and my money's on low scorer Pamela Anderson. Guest performers include Justin Bieber and Pitbull. ... Get the hankies ready for what promises to be an emotional workout on NBC's Parenthood (10/9c), as Kristina and Adam deal with her breast cancer diagnosis.