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"Ben and Kate," "The Mindy Project" Review: It's Never Too Late to Grow Up

By Sarah Carlson | TV Reviews | September 27, 2012 | Comments ()


BenKateMindy.jpg

One of the biggest surprises of the fall TV season may be that Fox has assembled one of the funniest two-hour weeknight packages on the air. Alongside last season's hit, "New Girl" ("Raising Hope" returns next week), new shows "Ben and Kate" and "The Mindy Project" present a sometimes quirky, sometimes sweet and mostly promising comedy block exploring the late-20s, early-30s lives of those still trying to figure things out.

"Ben and Kate" has the more interesting setup: Free-spirit Ben Fox (Nat Faxon) moves in with his kid sister, Kate (Dakota Johnson), to help care for her 5-year-old, Maddie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones). That's it. The simplicity is welcome considering how many series these days are built on specific premises that quickly back writers into a corner (see: "The New Normal"). "Ben and Kate" can go anywhere, and having siblings as the leads -- with plenty of neuroses to probe, a la the Gellers -- is a nice change. Ben may use the excuse of helping out with Maddie as his reason for relocating (that and that he lives in Sacramento -- "That city can't hold me"), and Kate may appear to have most of her life in order, but both are still relatively lost. Growing up in a troubled home bonded the two; Kate's voiceover at the start states they raised themselves -- "He never grew up; I grew up too fast."

For years, Ben has popped in and out of Kate's life, stopping by for a weekend of havoc here and there, often dragging Kate into whatever scheme he's concocted. He returns this time with hopes of crashing the wedding of his ex -- the one he refers to as "Mrs. Ben Fox -- to win her back with the help of grappling gear and a getaway car. Kate, who manages a bar, fusses about Ben's antics but usually finds herself willing to go along with them, such as organizing the best way to infiltrate the ex's wedding. Kate is the responsible one, smart and pretty but slightly dorky -- she likes to wear a fanny pack -- and her pregnancy with Maddie while still in college was the only thing in life she didn't plan. Johnson, whose voice gives her away as Melanie Griffith's daughter, presents a character with more personality than the average bland TV blonde. She matches Faxon's banter perfectly, the pair believably bickering like siblings. Faxon is endearing as the troublesome Ben, as harmless as a giant puppy one can't help but want to play with and love.

The series isn't without its tropes: There is the black friend, Tommy (Echo Kellum), who worships both Ben and Kate; the slutty friend, BJ (Lucy Punch), a waitress at Kate's bar who gives Maddie makeover lessons; and then there is Maddie herself, another precocious, well-behaved child character who is wise beyond her years. "You only made one mistake in your entire life and it was the best thing that ever happened to you," Ben says to Kate of the adorable girl, and perhaps viewers are lucky as well. An honest depiction of a 5-year-old would scare many away many a viewer. Instead, we have the grownups making messes, but at the end of the day Ben and Kate exhibit much sweetness and love for one another, along with a fierce loyalty. "We're like two peas in like the worse pod ever," Ben says to Kate as they hide underneath a table at his ex's wedding reception, a habit the two formed as children when they hid from their parents' arguing. In many ways, they are still those kids trying to steal away from the world. They have to face it, but fortunately, they can still face it together.

Creator and star Mindy Kaling has a tougher road ahead of her on "The Mindy Project" in terms of winning viewers. Her Mindy Lahiri straddles the line between likeable and not, an entitled OB/GYN determined to lead a life that will rival the countless romantic comedies she grew up adoring. She's smart and accomplished but also short-sighted and immature. She may take on an uninsured illegal immigrant as a patient in the practice she shares with a few other doctors, but her actions stem more from an inability to say no rather than a generous heart. Afterward, she encourages her assistants to focus on finding richer clients. There's a touch of Kaling's Kelly Kapoor from "The Office" in Mindy, but as a supporting character, Kelly's cluelessness worked. Mindy knows better; she just has to be reminded she does. As a lead, Mindy needs more substance.

Kaling is smart, however, and her show has a cleverness to it that hints at greater things to come. She isn't a typical sitcom star and she isn't afraid to make her character slightly unappealing. For example, Zooey Deschanel may turn off some viewers as Jess on "New Girl" because of the actresses' own quirks and style, but her character remains a sweet and good person. "The Mindy Project" is more reminiscent of Lena Dunham's "Girls," in which the characters are delightfully flawed. It's OK for female characters to make mistakes and act obnoxiously; it's OK for you not to like them all that much at times. The road to self-discovery is rarely pretty. At least in the pilot, Kaling presented a nice blend: You want to shake Mindy to stop her from continuing to hook up with the sleazy, model-esque doctor Jeremy Reed (Ed Weeks), but you can't help but feel for her on a blind date when she mentions on the phone to a friend, "Do you know how difficult it is for a chubby 31-year-old woman to go on a legitimate date with a guy who majored in economics at Duke?" Kaling is far funnier and more relatable than other sitcom leads, such as Whitney Cummings. Her talent helps you appreciate her character's ridiculousness.

Of course, Mindy can't see the looks she's getting from another of the practice's doctors, Danny Castellano (Chris Messina), a grumpy divorcee who once (rightfully) beat up a guy for having the nerve to sport a John Cougar Mellencamp T-shirt to a Bruce Springsteen show. Danny likes to swoop in and steal Mindy's patients as well as give her unsolicited advice on how to dress on a date or act professionally. Her not recognizing the tension she shares with him means she hasn't paid close enough attention to the countless rom coms she has devoured. They already know how to hurt each other: In one conversation, when Mindy doesn't like Danny's advice, she quickly refers to his divorce to shut him down. His response is meaner: She'd look better if she lost 15 pounds. Messina is charismatic and expressive as the wounded Danny, who already is far more interesting than the other characters. (Weeks is simply weak.) Anna Camp also stars as Gwen Grandy, Mindy's best friend from college who seems willing to let Mindy's drama distract from her stay-at-home mom life, and Stephen Tobolowsky (Toby from "The West Wing") serves as Marc Shulman, the head of the practice.

Mindy spends the beginning of the premiere in jail, recounting her steady diet of Meg Ryan flicks and the relationship she had with another doctor (played by Bill Hader), who soon dumped her for the office's Serbian bagel girl. "Are we 100 percent sure she's not a war criminal?," Mindy drunkenly asked the crowd at the pair's wedding before bolting with a bottle of bubbling and soon riding her bicycle into a stranger's pool, hence her arrest. The way she met her ex (they got stuck in an elevator together) had her convinced she was living a life worthy of a movie ("I'm basically Sandra Bullock!"), but now she's back at square one when it comes to love. Turning off When Harry Met Sally, which she watches in the doctor's lounge after a delivery, would be a good start. "Maybe I won't get married, you know?," she tells Danny. "Maybe I'll just do one of those 'Eat, Pray, Love' things. Ugh, no, I don't want to pray. Forget it. I'll just die alone." That may be easier than waiting around for things to develop with Danny. But "The Mindy Project" is worth the wait.

Sarah Carlson is a TV Critic for Pajiba. She lives in San Antonio.



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Comments Are Welcome, Douches Are Not


  • ras

    Ben & Kate... Sorry, the veneers of that guy are just turning me off. Don't you think he looks stupid?

  • tamatha_uhmelmahaye

    OK. Adding Ben and Kate to the DVR.

  • Devin McMusters

    I assume this review was written in homage to this week's South Park?

  • KatSings

    I didn't love The Mindy Project, but it has enough potential for me to tune in for awhile (hell, I watched half the season of Ringer...it doesn't always take much to keep me for a time). I enjoy the fact that the lead isn't another goddamn tiny person. Some days I get so frustrated with the great big wall I hit at auditions because I'm not a size 4, which is why I wanted to punch the shit out of Messina for the lose 15 lbs line, even if it was a deserved retaliation. I'll stick with this one for awhile and see what Kaling does with it.

  • Weird Priorities

    I did enjoy The Mindy Project. However, in the article, the reviewer states that Danny is the meaner of the two because he mentions she could lose a little weight? I mean, she mocks him for being recently divorced because he tries to give her some good advice and you think he's the one who's mean because he mentions she's a little chubby? wow

  • I thought Kaling's show was really cute. Most of the time I won't bother with these new shows until they're well settled, and I might not give this one another chance if it was run by someone else, but...I adore Mindy Kaling. And I'll stick with it for a bit. I thought it was a little cliche, but I liked her character quite a bit (she reminds me of Elliott from Scrubs) and some bits were really funny.

    So, definitely giving it a chance to find its footing. Maybe it'll be like Parks and Rec and have a so-so first six episodes then take off with a bang.

  • If by Stephen Tobolowsky you meant Richard Schiff, then yes. Otherwise....GoldenChance.notlong.com

  • Long_Pig_Tailor

    Look, lady, I told you once already, you're going to have to do better than this. I'm all for romancing you botchicks, but not if you're just going to copy/paste and throw a link in at the end. What am I, a piece of binary to you? You make me feel so cheap, so used, so....GoldenChance.notlong.com

  • John W

    Don't they have chairs over at FOX?

  • I'm just waiting for the moment when Ben & Kate has tired itself out and they decide to add a new kid or several to the mix to "spice things up." At which time, I DEMAND they call it "Ben & Kate Plus 8". Jump That Shark! Jump That Shark!

  • Long_Pig_Tailor

    No, they'll go risque and turn one of them adopted and make it a romcom.

    Plus, of course, also the eight.

  • DontStopNow

    If by Stephen Tobolowsky you meant Richard Schiff, then yes. Otherwise...

  • Artemis

    It was Richard Schiff in the first scene at her practice, and then they swapped him out for Tobolowsky.

  • Long_Pig_Tailor

    Because all bald people look alike? Shame on you, Fox, shame.

  • Bert_McGurt

    I was watching New Girl for the first time as well on the night these premiered, and I found it MUCH better than both these newcomers. Faxon was pretty annoying right off the bat (though Johnson and the little kid were somewhat endearing), and I feel like Mindy's success is going to rely heavily on Chris Messina since they can't stunt-cast Hader and Helms in each episode.
    Pilots are often a bit rough, so I'll give them another couple weeks, but I was underwhelmed.

  • A lot of people were underwhelmed with New Girl at first, too. The episodes this week are so far removed from the pilot and first few episodes it's not even funny. It went from the Zooey Deschanel Quirky Girl Half Hour to an entertaining, often bittersweet, sitcom about friends helping each other through everyday life. And sex. And booze. Lots of sex and booze.

    I predict The Mindy Project is going to tone down the quirk a lot, too. The pilot went heavy on the romcom obsession angle and foreshadowing, but I can't imagine the rest reading that obvious from here on out. We know what the general arc should be based on he premise. I just don't see how Mindy Kaling, with her sense of humor, would actually go for the obvious.

  • ,

    "It's not even funny."

    Funny, that's what I thought of the two eps of "New Girl" I saw last year. They were cringeworthy, and there's just not enough time left on my actuarial table to fuck around for a season waiting for a show to be any good.

    And while I'm grumping ...

    "the late-20s, early-30s lives of those still trying to figure things out."

    Fuck these people. Fuck them with a tuning fork. I'm sick to fucking death of these people. I don't wanna see them, I don't wanna hear them, I don't wanna smell their cooking. I want them to quit fucking around and get things figured out already. You're halfway to 60, for godtopus' sake, and take it from me, staring down 60 is a mo.ther.fuck.er. You get to 30, GET A FUCKING LIFE, cause you really don't have that much time left to spend it jerking off, you dumb shits.

    ... said Jack Daniel's.

  • ,

    Let me take a guess at the downvote demographic.

    You people need to get off your asses and get to work. My Social Security ain't gonna pay for itself.

  • The first few episodes of New Girl were pretty erratic as well and it settled down to become my favorite sitcom, so I will stick with these shows for a few weeks as well.

  • AM

    I watched New Girl all last season, and I thought this season's first two episodes were the best yet. Future Nick, Winston getting drunk, and Bearclaw totally worked for me.

  • michaelceratops

    In The Mindy Project, Richard Schiff plays the head of the practice, not Stephen Tobolowsky. You have the acting credits right though.

  • Melissa

    He was definitely Stephen Tobolosky in the credits last night...

  • michaelceratops

    It's Toby from The West Wing... played by Richard Schiff. Did I see an earlier version of the pilot? I'm totally weirded out now. But, as referenced above - Toby on the West Wing and presumably who I saw is Richard Schiff.

  • And interestingly enough, Tobolowsky appeared in one episode of the West Wing...although not as Toby - that would've been weird.

  • wojtek

    To be fair though - Tobolowsky has appeared in one episode of everything

  • Melissa

    It was definitely the insurance salesman from Groundhog's Day, so S.Tob, as the lazy spellers call him:)

    That's who's listed on IMDB, and I the name I recall from the credits.

    I hadn't heard that this got recast, but it is a distinct possibility, especially if Richard Schiff had conflicts after the pickup.

  • Aubsbobs

    Richard Schiff was recast. He shows up briefly in the beginning of the pilot, but he won't be on the series.

  • Well now I"m heartbroken. I watched the pilot on Hulu a couple of weeks ago and screamed in happiness when I saw Toby. That's so sad.

  • Tinkerville

    I guess I'm alone in thinking that The Mindy Project was, well, terrible? Just me then?

  • Fabius_Maximus

    I was already turned off by the trailer.

  • Melissa

    Nah, all of the characters on that show were unlikable, and it really grated...though not as bad as the passive-aggressive hate vibe I was picking up on in Ben&Kate.

    It didn't seem like any of the characters actually liked each other, which was interesting to me, seeing as we were told(as in, not shown) that the two girls were best friends, and the two guys were best friends. I got two shows off my watch list this fall.

  • JenVegas

    I thought the pilot was pretty bad too. I am going to give it a couple of more episodes to settle though.

  • Luke Anthony Matthews

    I agree, I turned it off when the Barbie started speaking to her. It's not often a show jumps the shark in the first five minutes.

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