'The Mindy Project' and 'Ben and Kate' premiere reviews: The fall's two best new sitcoms?

The Mindy Project and Ben and Kate, both of which premiered on Tuesday night flanked by a pair of new New Girl episodes, are the most promising of sitcoms in a fall season that’s not big on promising new sitcoms. If that seems like faint praise, it’s more like the sound of me hedging my bets, because while I was charmed by both, I recognize that the quality could rise or fall quickly.¬†

Mindy Kaling is easily the best-known quantity here. Her stint on The Office as both performer and writer, as well as her career as an author (the humor book as a career calling-card in the manner of Chelsea Handler and Tina Fey) and quick-witted Twitterer, all combine to form an image of an impish, brainy gal who probably doesn’t mind being called a “gal.” Much of this transfers over into her sitcom character: Mindy Lahiri, wisecracking OB/GYN, seems more like Kaling than Kelly Kapoor, daffy dating disaster.

The Mindy Project, pilot written by Kaling, was packed with Mindy-esque lines even when they weren’t coming from Mindy, as when her arresting officer declared that Mindy was “a rapist of peace and quiet.” But Kaling has been cunning in her casting. Anna Camp, so good on The Good Wife, might be equally appealing as Mindy’s friend Gwen when she’s given more air-time; Ed Weeks’ Jeremy displayed a flair for foolish horniness trying to pass as British suave; and The Newsroom‘s Chris Messina established Mindy’s doctor colleague Danny as an original creation you encounter in life but rarely see on TV — a guy who’s smart, a bit arrogant, but yet remains likable, partly because you want to be around when he says the next cleverly phrased bald truth no one else has the nerve to articulate.

Yes, I liked the use of guest stars Bill Hader and Ed Helms, even if I’m more interested in seeing what the show will be like when they’re not around — because The Mindy Project is going to succeed or fail on the strength of whether or not a lot of viewers want to continue to hang out with a character who described herself as “a chunky 31 year-old woman [who wants] to go on a legit date.” And also as a “vegetarian, but I eat eggs and fish and hamburgers.” Honesty and loopiness: They could work together in this character, in this show.

Ben and Kate derives from the real-life brother-sister relationship between creator Dana Fox and her brother. Nat Faxon, who co-wrote the Oscar-winning script for The Descendents, is a goofy man-child presented as a force of nature. Big and rangy, his booming voice pitched too loudly, Faxon’s Ben could have been colossaly irritating; instead, by the end of the premiere, he was pretty damn lovable.

That’s partly because Faxon knows how to modulate Ben to a skilled degree, but even more so because Dakota Johnson’s Kate knows how to handle the big lug, whom she recognizes as being both “an idiot” and having “the biggest heart.” Both actors are adept at physical comedy (Johnson’s twisting attempt to remove her sweater and getting tangled in her shirt was artfully done). And, wedged between them, single-mom-Kate’s daughter, Maddie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones), serves as a bridge that makes both adult siblings seem like better humans. Oddly, even though she had the night’s biggest laugh lines, Lucy Punch’s BJ is a character I’d say should be used rather sparingly. Punch is so adept at making little set-piece scenes sound improvised (her swizzle-stick dating advice to Kate; her make-up-applying session with Maddie) that she comes off a little too studiously absurdist.

Both shows are distinctive in the way they present their female protagonists’ relationships with men. Mindy’s easy joking with Chris Messina’s Danny is tonally different than other shows, which rely upon a will-they-get-together dynamic. Kate’s desire to find a guy is sabotaged not merely by Ben’s intrusive doofiness, but by her upbringing — by emphasizing how much Kate and Ben raised each other, neglected by emotionally distant parents, there’s a hesitation that comes across in her approach to dating.

I want to see more of these ideas explored in both of these shows. I hope they choose to do that, in addition to all the wacky stuff; combining both elements truly might make them solid new shows.

What do you think of The Mindy Project and Ben and Kate?

Twitter: @kentucker

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