Today, in order to celebrate my bank balance finally climbing above the one-dollar mark*, I sat around and caught up on a bunch of television. And it was (mostly) awesome.
I have a bit of space to fill in my usual TV routine since I kicked “Up All Night” from the roster. The show started off strong last year, but by the end of its first season it was showing some stress at the seams; it never quite seemed to find its voice, even though it had lots of engaging elements – a likable, believable central couple in Will Arnett and Christina Applegate; a melodramatic, plot-driving best friend in Maya Rudolph; an uncommon conceit (happy stay-at-home dad); and some weird, memorable tertiary characters played by the likes of Jennifer Hall, Nick Cannon, and Will Forte. At the start of the second season, however, the show has dumped much of what made it appealing in the first place – the premiere centers around the cancellation of the Ava Show, leaving Christina Applegate unemployed, Will Arnett returning to work as the breadwinner, and abandoning all those interesting minor characters. However much the show might have needed some retooling at the end of its first season, the new creative direction was and is an emphatically poor choice: though last year at this time I evangelized the show despite its low ratings, now I find it to be pretty much unwatchable.
But! In its place come three new sitcoms, all of which have already earned full-season pickups. My favorite of the new crop might be “Ben & Kate,” the pilot of which was a little bit messy but the second episode of which proved enormously promising. The show centers around the single mother of a young daughter, whose flighty older brother moves back in; the sibling relationship feels thoroughly lived-in, and the foregrounding of siblinghood is a refreshing premise (and I’m not just saying that because I’ve been living in my brother’s guest room for the last two weeks). The kid is, so far, just the right balance of cute and un-precocious, and the two friends who round out the regular cast have a lot of potential. Moreover, the sitcom-absurdity of the second episode’s plot made eminent sense, because unlike so many other shows – like “Up All Night” – “Ben & Kate” has established, clearly, what is at stake for its protagonists: Kate is a single, working-class mother trying to do right as a parent and a sister, while Ben also seeks to be responsible to his family, even though he is broke, unemployed, and seemingly unemployable. These are people with legitimate problems, and filtering their attempted solutions through a sibling dynamic – rife with natural conflict, history, and loyalty – justifies what otherwise might feel sitcommy.
The need for legitimate problems – for real stakes – is currently bedeviling the women-are-funny darling of the 2012 season, “The Mindy Project.” I actually like Mindy Lahiri as the show’s protagonist; she’s competent at her job if not in her rom-com-obsessed life, but if Judd Apatow can make man-child schlubbiness into a heroic trait, why can’t women jump on the arrested-development train? Mindy’s romantic travails, however, can’t really sustain an entire show – what’s more interesting, and higher-stakes, is her job as an OB-GYN. The show’s second episode offered more of a window into her workplace, establishing her professional competence and the dynamic among her colleagues; the former is particularly important, given that otherwise, it would be all too easy to dismiss Mindy as a lovelorn ditz. But doctors make for good drama precisely because being a doctor is a profession which involves a lot of legitimate problems, and if “The Mindy Project” can successfully integrate the frivolity of quoting “Sleepless in Seattle” alongside the seriousness of delivering babies, then it might have enough humor and enough narrative propulsion to last.
For a near-perfect juxtaposition of seriousness with humor, I offer my final recommendation: “Go On,” NBC’s most recent effort to get Matthew Perry back to sitcom stardom. I’d read reviews which compared the show – favorably – to a “Friends”/“Community” hybrid, and it’s an analogy I have to agree with; Perry essentially plays an alternate-universe version of Chandler Bing, and the group he falls into (his grief-counseling group, after the death of alternate-universe Monica) is similar to the study group on “Community” (although even more diverse – this one has a Latina! And an Asian-American! And a lesbian! Seriously, it’s amazing!). The show’s tone is less surreal than “Community”, but its central premise – that almost all of its main characters are recovering from serious personal losses – keeps it from swinging too far into the cliched or the saccharine. As the first of Perry’s post-“Friends” efforts to earn a full season pickup, this might finally be the comeback vehicle he deserves; in the meantime, it’s at least worth tuning into.
So there you have it. Of course, “Cougar Town” and “Parks and Recreation” are still going strong, and should be watched by everyone. Even if “Cougar Town” has a ridiculous title.
*Seriously guys, the last few weeks have been kind of rough going for me. But I have a comma now! It’s all good!