Screwball, love, and gambling

Mindy Kaling plays a lovesick doctor on "The Mindy Project," premiering on Fox.
Mindy Kaling plays a lovesick doctor on "The Mindy Project," premiering on Fox. (BETH DUBBER / Fox)
Posted: September 26, 2012

The Emmys are over and the new TV season has begun in earnest. Release the Kraken!

Fox and CBS are rolling out their new Tuesday series this week, adding enough variety to vault the evening past Thursday as the week's biggest smorgasbord.

Ben & Kate (8:30 p.m. on Fox29) is a choice serving of screwball, although Fox seems to be confused about the ingredients in its own show.

For months, the network has been pitching this as a battle between a control-freak single mom (Dakota Johnson) and her chaotic older brother (Nat Faxon).

Rarely has a thumbnail description been so misleading.

That's not to say that Faxon's character Ben isn't wild, but it's in service to freedom and fun.

He's a dreamer and a romantic whose head is off on Jupiter, but his heart's in the right place.

His "responsible" sister Kate (Johnson) is the one whose life is a lonely frustrated mess.

Both characters have nicely imagined second banana friends, the inappropriately lascivious BJ (Lucy Punch) for Kate and the dangerously supportive Tommy (Echo Kellum) for Ben.

The cleverly written show from screenwriter Dana Fox also makes the best use of a 5-year-old as a comic foil ever. Little Maddie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) is constantly being roped into conversations way over her head.

At one point, Ben, holding up two virtually identical ties, asks the girl, "Which one says, 'I'm better than your stupid fiance?' "

Johnson brings a sweet, vulnerable quality to the role of Kate that is very reminiscent of Renée Zellweger in Jerry Maguire.

She will never be confused with Mindy Kaling's molten mess of a character on The Mindy Project (9:30 p.m., Fox29).

Kaling, who made her mark as the hostage-taking Kelly Kapoor on The Office, plays Mindy Lahiri, an ob/gyn with a bit of a drinking problem and a major case of male dependency.

Mindy is a unique specimen, someone who has fried her circuits and warped her world view through decades of repeated watching of sappy romantic comedies starring the likes of Meg Ryan, Sandra Bullock, and Katherine Heigl.

All she wants is to be loved to distraction. Is that so wrong? Well, the way she goes about it, it certainly is. Because as soon as life deviates from rom-com conventions, she tends to get very bitter.

Not as bitter as her boorish colleague (Chris Messina). The cast is rounded out by Ed Weeks, Zoe Jarman, Anna Camp, and Stephen Toblowsky.

Kaling clearly has industry juice, because the pilot featured Bill Hader, Ed Helms, and Richard Schiff.

 Ironically, the airier Ben & Kate has a nearly note-perfect pilot, but this darker, clumsier half-hour holds more potential, primarily because of Kaling's subversive ambush wit. Like The Office, The Mindy Project trades deftly on the humor of excruciating awkwardness.

Vegas (10 p.m. CBS3) has a lot of things going for it: star power, period ambience, and a compelling central conflict.

But despite all that, the show doesn't feel like it's hit the jackpot.

Dennis Quaid plays real-life character Ralph Lamb, a fourth-generation Nevada rancher who is pressed into service as the sheriff in Las Vegas in 1960, just as the town is beginning to fester, er, explode.

The criminal element is represented by Vincent Savino (Michael Chiklis), who is flown in by the Chicago mob to run the Savoy Casino.

He's a brutal man, but he does observe a code. And that code goes into effect just as soon as he's got his hands on everything they can grasp.

Lamb is living a peaceful, if dusty, way of life. He only takes the job when the mayor (Michael O'Neill) agrees to reroute all these planes that are suddenly zooming into Las Vegas and spooking Lamb's cattle herds.

Like Wyatt Earp in Tombstone, Lamb takes a family approach to the sheriffing, using his brother ( Terra Nova's Jason O'Mara) and his son (Taylor Handly) as his deputies.

The leads are excellent in this battle between frontier justice and Goodfellas savagery. Quaid sits a saddle well and Chiklis wears a fedora better than any TV character since Kojak.

Rounding out the cast are Carrie-Anne Moss of The Matrix and Sarah Jones of Alcatraz.

The show has a strong desert setting and good period detail, particularly its recreation of a scaled-down Strip. Plus, it's a kick to see those old low-slung, big-finned American road hogs rolling around.

But I'm growing increasingly skeptical that period action series can succeed on television, because big-budget Hollywood films have raised the bar so unreasonably high for viewers.

Vegas is a quality production, but it takes a lot to get our sluggish hearts racing these days.


Contact David Hiltbrand at 215-854-4552 or dhiltbrand@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @daveondemand_tv.

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