18 September 2013
It all started with New Girl. Well, actually it started a year earlier when FOX decided to pair the massive hit/obnoxious trainwreck Glee with two new sitcoms, one of which was Raising Hope (technically it was 3 sitcoms in 2 timeslots, one coming in at midseason). Though both Running Wilde and Traffic Light burned out quickly on account of being terrible (the former far worse than the latter), Raising Hope was sneakily smart and incredibly fresh, earning itself FOX’s first sitcom renewal in Four Years(!). The blue collar family comedy was offbeat and weird, and since Glee thinks its also offbeat and weird (though it’s actually pandering and predictable), a space existed for New Girl to come in to form a legitimate comedy block on Tuesday nights- it’s theme? Everybody’s Quirky! New Girl took off like a rocket on account of being both zeitgeisty and incredibly well executed (phenomenal cast + sharpest comedy writing around= legitimate success, in an ideal world) and easily became the dominant feature of the Everybody’s Quirky lineup (my logline, not FOX’s).
For the 2012 season, FOX finally kicked Glee out of their buzziest night of programming and over to the epic battleground of Thursday nights, leaving two half-hour slots open to make a full night of sitcoms. What’s interesting here is how FOX chose to fill those spots. They had three promising, writerly, single-camera comedies to fill two spots alongside New Girl and Raising Hope: Ben & Kate, The Goodwin Games, and The Mindy Project. If they’d gone with Ben & Kate and The Goodwin Games, FOX Tuesdays would have veered even more strongly towards its quirky mantle- a safe space for weird, sweet things about family (even New Girl is about family, even though it’s about friends) and I honestly think at least one of those two now defunct shows would have lived to see a second season (my money’s on the sad waste that was the Bays/Thomas creation Goodwin Games. It was too good and starred too much Scott Foley & Becki Newton to be burned off in the summer!). But instead of making the thematic decision, FOX went with the buzziest creator and slotted Mindy Kaling’s workplace rom-com in amidst the quirky family comedies.
Mindy Kaling, and thus The Mindy Project, is quick-witted and vibrant but I would call neither her nor it “quirky”. The Mindy Project has only one character who marches adamantly to a syncopated drummer (Morgan, one of my least favourite characters in the strong ensemble), all the others are either deconstructions of rom-com mainstays (like Jeremy, the dashing “Hugh Grant in About A Boy” type) or relatively normal people who combine to create the comedy (like Chris Messina’s Danny and Mindy herself). The effect of mixing a fresh iteration of a fairly conventional sitcom paradigm into a world of quirkballs like the living cartoon Ben Fox (Ben & Kate) is that it starts to pull the programming block back from its quirky orbit and more towards earth. The Mindy Project took some time to find its footing but was still a clear winner for FOX, pulling in decent numbers and plenty of buzz because of its media-friendly creator/star (a rare female minority showrunner and the third woman both helming and headlining her own TV universe in 2012). Ben & Kate quickly fell by the wayside (The Goodwin Games was murdered Firefly-style with barely a word). Raising Hope had always had respectable but uninspiring ratings and could be tossed around the schedule without too many people caring (though I’ll be pretty ticked if they cancel it), leaving New Girl and Mindy to completely define FOX Tuesdays for the 2012/13 season. Without its quirky comrades, the “adorkable” side of New Girl didn’t seem as all-encompassing. So the comedy block began to take on the one quality that New Girl and The Mindy Project shared (beyond good writing): female stars, female creators, large female audiences- these were Girl Shows.
What’s annoying about that is that these are totally not Girl Shows. Okay, I will grant you that Mindy Kaling is a pretty pink person. Her show is a romantic comedy about ObGyns and her main character is so fantastically feminine that she likely isn’t all that relatable to men. But Mindy’s writing staff is made up almost entirely of men, and those men do a fantastic job of ensuring that the male characters in Mindy’s universe are some of the most honestly conceived on TV (at least Danny is; Jeremy is wildly under-written, but so are many of the show’s women). I don’t think I know a single male viewer of The Mindy Project but I do know that if you sat almost any of my male friends down and force-fed them The Mindy Project, they would laugh at a fair number of the jokes and quickly TV-befriend Danny. But I do understand why The Mindy Project is “a girl show” (though not in the same way that something like Grey’s Anatomy or Hart of Dixie takes aim straight at a uniquely female sensibility). What’s funnier is that New Girl is. New Girl has a 2:1 male-female ratio (neither CeeCee nor Winston counts as a real character for the purposes of this exercise) and while Jess is technically titular and is played by the show’s biggest star, the breakout characters are Nick and Schmidt by a long shot. They’re some of the best male characters ever written. At least half of New Girl‘s biggest laughs come from Nick’s pointedly male brand of listlessness. At least another third come from Schmidt’s alpha male intensity. Yes, it’s written by a woman, but it’s written by the sort of woman that men want to hang out with (Nick is based on Liz Meriwhether’s best friend; only cool chicks have a straight male best friend! *semi-ironic shout-out*). New Girl is like the Princess Bride of television shows. Based on the title and the colour palette and the cover of the DVD, it’s hard to get a guy to agree to actually watch it. But the second they do, it becomes their favourite movie. Every man I know who has been somehow coerced into giving a chance to “that show with that chick with the bangs”, is an instant fan of New Girl.
All arguments about the credibility of the label aside, though- FOX Tuesdays had become associated with female-driven comedies widely loved by female audiences. With the end of Fringe, relative failure of The Following, continued success of Glee amongst pre-teen girls, and further decline of American Idol‘s audience until it consists almost entirely of housewives from middle America, what is arguably the “manliest” network in terms of programming (brash animated comedy on Sundays, a history of gritty action dramas, football) found themselves needing a boost of testosterone (an inclination the far more traditionally female-friendly ABC and CW rarely seem to have, if ever). What do you do if you need to lure men to your network? Cops and Seth MacFarlane.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Dads, FOX Tuesday’s new sitcoms- which premiered last night beside a Fantastic season premiere for New Girl and a decent one for The Mindy Project– are blatant man grabs. Created by men, starring men (the sort of goofy developmentally arrested men that Millennial men relate to), featuring traditionally male-dominated jobs like law enforcement and video game development (the latter being maybe more of a male fantasy than something many men actually do). They both also feature exclusively super hot chicks (as opposed to the relatable human, though still hot, women on New Girl and The Mindy Project) and men that have made things men like (like Robot Chicken, Family Guy, and “Dick in a Box”). It’s not a subtle strategy and a lot of people already hate it (or rather they specifically hate one of the two shows) but it just might work. And I’m okay with that.
The first reason I don’t hate FOX’s ridiculous need to bring more obvious penile influence to their only female-driven block of programming in decades is that it might actually help the two female-driven comedies that anchor the block (which happen to be my two favourite series on network right now). As I said, if men can be tricked into watching either New Girl or The Mindy Project (Especially New Girl), they usually end up liking it. If it takes Brenda Song in a schoolgirl outfit to get them there, so be it. By keeping the existing shows in the 9-10 slot (starting with the gateway drug of New Girl then ending with the full-on female Mindy Project), FOX is giving them the chance to catch their lead-in’s demographic before they switch over to King of the Hill reruns on the cartoon network. (IMPORTANT NOTE: I’m speaking specifically about the sort of men FOX has baited the hook for, not men in general; some of you are too awesome to let gender politics dictate what shows you watch, right?).
The second reason I don’t hate it is that…ready?… I genuinely really enjoyed the premiere of both shows. Brooklyn Nine-Nine is fine, goofy humour led by a comedian born to be the fun/sweet/charming headliner of his own network show. Andy Samberg– especially at his current apex of handsomeness- has exactly that balance of non-threatening but completely not boring charisma that can’t go wrong as the juvenile but talented detective around whom Brooklyn Nine-Nine is somewhat shabbily built. As of right now, Samberg and his perfect crossover appeal (comedy nerds; guy’s guys; girls who Seth Cohen taught to love lanky snarky Jewish guys, meaning all of us) is 99% of the show’s draw. But if we learned anything from New Girl, it’s that a lead can launch a show but an ensemble can make it great. Here’s hoping the writers have Brooklyn Nine-Nine‘s back as much as they have Samberg’s (something about the casting of Andre Braugher and the presence of Michael Schur makes me think it’ll work out).
The show that precedes Brooklyn Nine-Nine on the schedule is far more interesting. Everyone’s going to like Brooklyn Nine-Nine, even if they’re underwhelmed by it at first (best case scenario: Parks & Rec had the same creator and started out merely pleasant before turning Genius), but there is already a giant hullaballoo around Dads. And why? Oh, I don’t know, I guess it’s because people like hullaballoos, because if they were actually watching the show in good faith they wouldn’t be making such a racket. People just hate Seth MacFarlane, that’s all there really is to the Dads hate. That’s particularly interesting when you consider that he isn’t the creator or even one of the writers; he’s just an EP, but Dads sports the general MacFarlane sense of humour and the guys who actually Are the creators of Dads– Wellesley Wild and Alex Sulkin- are Family Guy vets who co-wrote Ted with MacFarlane (the two shows also share a star in Seth Green). What’s amazing about the intense and almost omnipresent backlash against MacFarlane and his cohorts in comedy is that it all balances on the flat-out false idea that they’re not in on the joke. Of Course they’re in on the jokes, that’s why they wrote them! When a character says something racist or suggests that their assistant wear a schoolgirl outfit, you are supposed to judge that character harshly, and maybe even laugh at their expense (or the uncomfortable position they put the other characters in). Does nobody remember Archie Bunker? Al Bundy? With a few exceptions (was the math textbook joke really necessary?), I thought most of the jokes in Dads were funny and often really honest (I’ve gotta tell you, my Pillar of Society grandfather has come out with a lot worse than Warner’s dad on occasion, and he’s not a sitcom character). I liked the loving agony of Warner and Eli’s situation; I liked that there’s a central male friendship that seems to be based on something; I liked that there’s a dry and ambitious minority female character whose main concern is not being a role model so much as being a flawed and interesting character (she has just as much freedom to be a cowering idiot as the white men do). I like Seth Green, I think he’s consistently winning and always funny and can make me like just about any character he plays. And I like Seth MacFarlane (and, by extension, those who are deliberately following in his footsteps). I think he’s a good guy with a liberal agenda and a fearless sense of free speech that often gets massively misinterpreted (Read this brilliant OpEd about his performance at the Oscars and you’ll understand what I mean). It’s not that I don’t get offended easily (well, I wouldn’t say easily but boy did Man Up! push my buttons), it’s just that, as the great Moshe Kasher says, “if it makes you feel any better, [they were] just kidding!”
Long story not all that short, I really enjoyed the pilot of Dads (I especially enjoyed the sneaky Dan Castellaneta cameo). I also enjoyed the pilot of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, just not as much as Dads. And while neither may be worthy of sharing FOX Tuesday’s space with the likes of New Girl and (to a lesser extent) The Mindy Project, they will likely accomplish their goal of pulling more male viewers towards the channel and they’ll do it while being thoroughly enjoyable in their own right.
CLICK HERE to read Matt’s regular Pilot Watch of Brooklyn Nine-Nine. This article can serve as our Pilot Watch for Dads since, fittingly, no one wanted to cover it.