Reviewing television pilots is a tricky practice–how much weight should be placed on a single television episode that may or may not be representative of the series that follows? Some shows start poorly and evolve into something great (“Parks and Recreation”). Others may have a fantastic premiere episode and fizzle quickly (“Glee” became unwatchable in record time). The following reviews are nothing more than first impressions and I’m willing to give any of these shows a few weeks to prove itself.
I’ll start with my favorite pilot of the bunch, Mindy Kaling’s “The Mindy Project.” Kaling, best known for her work as a writer, producer and co-star of NBC’s “The Office,” has a singular wit, natural comic timing and a likable onscreen persona (her off-screen persona is great too–follow her on Twitter). Though these qualities have only sporadically been highlighted on “The Office,” her star potential has always been clear. Kaling’s voice deserves a prominent forum and “The Mindy Project” may offer that. That said, the pilot is not perfect by any means. For one thing, the background characters need some serious fleshing out. Also, if viewed in an uncharitable light, the plot amounts to little more than a string of romantic comedy cliches squeezed into 25 minutes. Kaling’s self-awareness and good natured sarcasm, however, allow “The Mindy Project” to transcend its genre while incorporating some of its most addictive elements. In crafting a character that desperately wants her life to resemble a romantic comedy, the writers have found a way to make these conventions feel organic and fresh. Premieres Tuesday, Sept. 25 on Fox. Grade: B
“The New Normal,” a half-hour dramedy about a gay couple and their surrogate, from “Glee” producers Ryan Murphy and Allison Adler would likely feel similarly fresh had I been able to view it objectively. As it stands, however, I could not get past the Ryan Murphy-ness of it all. By this I mean that, on the one hand, it’s an ambitious pilot boasting a unique wit and some poignant dramatic beats. On the other, it seems all too pleased with itself and is a huge mess tonally. There are many elements of the show that I like in isolation, but it fails to come together as a cohesive whole and, judging by Murphy’s previous efforts, I don’t have much hope that things will improve. This is a shame because there is some potential here, particularly with such a promising cast. There are problems in that department too, however. Ellen Barkin and Andrew Rannells are very funny here, but their over-the-top performances belong on a different show than the more grounded turns by Georgia King and Justin Bartha. Additionally, while I understand the desire to bring NeNe Leakes into the mix, her character feels both unnecessary and out of place. I’ll likely check back in with “The New Normal” if I hear that things have improved, but, otherwise, I don’t think I can handle the frustration of such wasted potential. Premieres Tuesday, Sept. 11 on NBC. Grade: B-
“Go On” starring Matthew Perry, who hasn’t caught a break since “Friends” ended eight years ago, suffers from similar tonal issues as “The New Normal.” The premise involves a sportscaster (Perry) who, after the death of his wife, visits a support group featuring a diverse array of grieving people. Sounds hilarious, right? If there is a way to turn this premise into a successful sitcom, the people behind “Go On” certainly haven’t figured it out. Perhaps if the “humorous” scenes were less decidedly goofy, the show’s dual tones would feel less at odds. As it stands, the comedic elements feel all-too familiar and the dramatic moments unearned. Clearly NBC is banking on Perry to draw a large audience, but he seems to be on autopilot here, offering little more than his usual sarcastic delivery. I don’t dislike Perry, but his Chandler Bing routine is likely not compelling enough to carry an entire series. Premieres Tuesday, Sept. 11 on NBC. Grade: C
That brings me to ”Ben and Kate.” I really don’t have much to say about the “Ben and Kate” pilot. It’s… fine, I guess? The premise–a young mother (a charming Dakota Johnston) deals with her immature adult brother (Nat Faxon, succeeding at being very annoying)–is not exactly inspired and the execution is middling. It’s intentionally slight and decidedly sweet, neither of which are bad qualities, but the show feels like it could use a bit more adrenaline. This may be what actress Lucy Punch is trying to provide in her supporting role as a loopy British waitress, but she feels ridiculously out of place here. I think the main issue is that the pilot episode did not feature one joke or plotline I have not seen elsewhere. This lack of vigor would not be out of place on a sitcom in its fourth or fifth season, but here it’s a bit more troubling. Premieres Tuesday, Sept. 25 on Fox. Grade: C