TV

Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

One sitcom surprise, one disappointment

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It might not be fair or just, but sometimes new TV shows are judged not just in terms of quality, but also on the basis of advance expectations and hype.

Take, for instance, the two new Fox comedies that premiere tonight -- Ben and Kate (7:30 p.m., Fox/Citytv) and The Mindy Project (8:30 p.m., Fox/Citytv): one is a pretty good sitcom that arrives as a refreshing prime-time surprise, and the other is a capably constructed comedy that fails to live up to the huge expectations that were created prior to its debut.

One feels like an unexpected victory; the other seems like a bit of a disappointment.

Unfair, perhaps, but hey... that's TV.

Ben and Kate, which stars Dakota Johnson and Nat Faxon as mismatched siblings trying to help each other navigate the difficult passage from young adult to full-blown grown-up, is a goofy sitcom with a good heart and an upbeat attitude that makes it easy to like.

Kate (Johnson, who's the daughter of actors Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith) is the sister who always followed the rules and would probably have grown up to be a model citizen in a very responsible family and career if her one impulsive post-adolescent moment hadn't led to an unplanned pregnancy that forced her to drop out of college and get a low-level job as a bar manager in order to make ends meet while surviving as a single mom.

Her older brother, Ben (Faxon), is what some observers would call an irrepressible dreamer but most others would call an irresponsible layabout. He's full of schemes, broken promises and aw-shucks charm, and could probably be a pretty big somebody if he wasn't always trying to figure out a way to be somebody else.

In the series pilot, Ben blows back into Kate's life unexpectedly after a couple of years' absence; he says he's just eager to reconnect, but Kate -- quite rightly -- suspects an ulterior motive. It turns out that Ben has returned home to mount a last-ditch (and completely futile) effort to reclaim the heart of an ex-girlfriend who dumped him, with good cause, a couple of years earlier.

While he's planning his over-the-top romantic overture, Ben also begins to cramp Kate's style as she prepares to seal the deal (sexually) with the first guy she has seriously dated in years. The overlapping schemes are destined to become one big interpersonal train wreck, but the way the pilot episode's storyline plays out is so appealingly loopy that it's hard to call anyone here a loser.

Ben and Kate is one of those shows whose success will depend more on the on-screen chemistry of its cast members than on anything that comes out of the writers' room. The script is actually pretty good; the immediate spark created by Johnson and Faxon -- aided by a very likable supporting cast -- is what gives this show such promise and makes it one of the new season's most pleasant surprises.

The Mindy Project, which arrives tonight at 8:30 on Fox and Citytv, probably had more pre-season buzz attached to it than any other rookie comedy. Mindy Kaling (The Office's Kelly Kapoor) has established herself as one of the TV business's rising stars, having written almost two dozen episodes of that show while also learning to be a director and rising to the level of executive producer.

It was a foregone conclusion that she would soon have her own TV show; it was equally certain that the show would be preceded by a wave of hype and weighed down by several layers of great expectations.

The Mindy Project, in which she plays a young, talented doctor (OB/GYN) who's as brilliant at her job as she is hopeless at her personal life, isn't half bad. But it isn't all the way good, either, and that's bound to be a problem for Kaling and company.

The show has a good supporting cast and a workable premise, but the fictional Mindy that Kaling has created is a bit like the characters played by Kristen Wiig in Bridesmaids and Katherine Heigl in 27 Dresses -- so completely bent on short-circuiting her romantic prospects with self-destructive behaviour that she's actually quite unlikable.

It's a fixable problem, but the repairs must be fast and extensive for The Mindy Project to have any chance of living up to the lofty goals it's expected to meet.

brad.oswald@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @BradOswald

TV REVIEW

Ben and Kate

Starring Dakota Johnson, Nat Faxon, Maggie Jones and Lucy Punch

Tonight at 7:30

Fox and Citytv

4 stars out of 5

The Mindy Project

Starring Mindy Kaling, Chris Messina, Ed Weeks, Anna Camp, Zoe Jarman and Dana DeLorenzo

Tonight at 8:30

Fox and Citytv

3 stars out of 5

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 25, 2012 D3

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