Throughout its history, television has provided all sorts of helpful blueprints on how to exact revenge. There have been prank wars, elaborate, murderous scheming, and even an entire show based around beautiful, stabby people faking their own deaths. But all pale in comparison to the real-life machinations currently on display every Tuesday night on Fox.
There, on the hallowed ground where Dr. Gregory House once laid his oxy-riddled head, network entertainment chairman Kevin Reilly is running a game against NBC, his old employer, that would merit a nod of approval even from notorious critic Sun Tzu. In order to crush his enemy, Reilly has become him. It's business as usual for the production arms of the major networks to supply content for rivals — ABC's Last Man Standing, for example, is produced by Fox. But to cobble together an entire feast out of another studio's leftovers? That's unprecedented. And yet fully half of Fox's Tuesday hails from NBCUniversal Studios: Reilly snatched up The Mindy Project after NBC chose a never-aired Roseanne comeback vehicle instead. (Worth mentioning: Mindy was the first new sitcom of the 2012-13 TV season to be renewed. All of NBC's new comedies were canceled after one season.) A year later, he outbid the Peacock for Brooklyn Nine-Nine, a show developed by Parks and Recreation stalwarts Michael Schur and Dan Goor and starring Saturday Night Live's Andy Samberg. New Girl, the night's anchor and one of Reilly's pet projects,1 is precisely the sort of pheromonal romp that was once NBC's bread and butter. Reilly, in other words, is the fox in the henhouse and he's currently using a multicolored tail feather as a toothpick.
Last week, Reilly managed his most brazen Dumpster dive to date, nabbing the untitled sitcom project from former SNL writer John Mulaney that NBC rejected back in May and ordering six episodes of it. Though no scheduling announcements have been made, those episodes would slide awfully nicely into the 8 p.m. slot currently occupied by the awful Dads.2 Mulaney's louche and very funny pilot script, of which I've seen an early draft, is the first multi-camera comedy I can remember that doesn't feel frozen in the '90s or recently thawed from the depths of CBS's meathead locker. The Mulaney project was shepherded by Lorne Michaels and costars Martin Short.3 It couldn't be more NBC if it were filmed at the 30 Rock gift shop. Yet its rejection by the network is no longer surprising. While recently extended NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt is busy mining the network's distant past for flecks of gold, Reilly has been making hay with the clever, urbane sitcoms that should have been the peacock's present. NBC's Thursday, once the crown jewel of network broadcasting, has fallen so far it's unlikely ever to get back up. In its place, Fox's Tuesday has emerged as the smartest, funniest, and all-around best night of comedy on television.
Of course, it bears asking: What does it even mean to have a strong night of comedy in 2013? Contemporary viewers treat time slots the way jaywalkers treat crosswalks: as antiquated advice, not anything to be bound by. The same multi-platform freedom that allows me to completely ignore Dads is the same thing that's diminishing the very idea of a unified night of programming. The concept of "Must See TV" is extinct not because NBC killed it with years of crap like Outsourced and Up All Night — although that certainly didn't help! — but because, when it comes to TV, nobody "must" do anything anymore. It has become increasingly easy for couch potatoes of all stripes to curate their own evening of laughs simply by stringing together a few hours of DVR-ed favorites and streaming indulgences with the occasional YouTube cat-in-box video sprinkled in to cleanse the palate. When everything is à la carte, why should a network even bother to suggest courses?
Still, in the face of DIY competition, I'd actually argue that it's more important than ever for the traditional broadcasters to program with purpose. First and foremost, it's crucial for their own survival: As the stumbles of ABC's all-new Tuesday night have proven, even viewers accustomed to channel-surfing can use a road map. (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and The Goldbergs both feature people in crazy costumes, but that's about the only thing they have in common.) Second, the burning nostalgia that TV fans have for yesteryear isn't necessarily for old stars and creaky concepts — if it were, Sean Saves the World would be ruling it, too — but rather for a sense of comfort and security. The glory days of NBC's Thursday nights — and I'm including all three decades of greatness here, the Cheers-anchored '80s, the Friends/Seinfeld '90s, and the Office/30 Rock aughts — crackled with wit and infectious, rom-comedic possibility. Viewers could park themselves on a single channel, secure in the knowledge that they'd be smartly entertained for at least 90 minutes.4 It was network TV at its best: both dependable and transporting, an intimate, unmissable party to which the entire country was invited.
Fox's Tuesdays — and, remember, I'm talking about 8:30 to 10 p.m. here; we never docked Frasier because it had to air next to Veronica's Closet — aren't quite there yet, certainly not in terms of ratings. But when judged solely on creative merits, they're getting awfully close. This is mostly thanks to New Girl, which, in its third season, is fully Reaganing. Originally designed and promoted as a one-woman Etsy shop, the series has blossomed beyond the charms of Zooey Deschanel into a true (American) ensemble. Max Greenfield's Schmidt got the early attention — and rightfully so; the character remains one of the very best on television thanks to Greenfield's prissy, caffeinated precision5 — but he's been matched shtick for shtick by Jake Johnson's Nick, a Bill Murray character stuck in a smirk-resistant world. Deschanel and Hannah Simone have proven themselves to be far nimbler comic performers than the early episodes would have suggested, and Lamorne Morris's manic Winston plays second fiddle to no one — though he did spend the first two seasons mostly fiddling with himself due to a worrying lack of writerly imagination. The remedy thus far this season seems to involve making Winston an actual insane person, which, to be fair, has given him something to do, though he's often stuck doing it with puzzle pieces and cats.6
Whether they feature blood relations or not, all successful sitcoms are essentially about families: groups of idiosyncratic weirdos brought together by quirks of fate or circumstance. And New Girl works best when it stays tightly focused on the internal logic of the loft. The strongest episodes — such as the Kay Cannon–scripted "Nerd" from two weeks ago — have the same loopy, claustrophobic energy of a college dorm midway through finals or an elevator stuck between floors during a boozy office party. By committing itself early to the inevitable relationship between Nick and Jess — and, in so doing, demonstrating the sort of storytelling bravery usually reserved for the very confident or the very drunk — New Girl has tapped even further into that familiar, Friends-ian sitcom sweet spot: when loving becomes interchangeable with laughing and sheer likability goes a long way toward papering over any flaws. Not many shows are able to maintain this serotonin spike for long — and, should it waver, the hangover threatens to be long and brutal. But even fewer achieve it in the first place.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine hasn't been on a month and already it seems like a savvy veteran. Though none of the aired episodes have been outstanding, all have been solid — an achievement in itself, especially if one adheres to the slow-growth philosophy of freshman sitcoms as espoused by Brooklyn cocreator Michael Schur. In the short time since the pilot, it's possible to see writers growing comfortable writing for actors and actors growing into characters. First-season sitcom stories are very often familiar because they're being generated in a vacuum — whereas later seasons can build off of everything that came before — but at least Brooklyn is a high-class Dyson, powered by established imaginations inherited from Parks and Recreation (Dan Goor, Norm Hiscock) and the late, lamented Happy Endings (Prentice Penny, Gil Ozeri). After four episodes, it's clear that the lessons from Parks' lurching, now mercifully forgotten first mini-season have been learned.
I'm still not sure if Andre Braugher is having much fun lending his stillness and stature to all this silliness, but his presence certainly makes everyone else funnier. Melissa Fumero, as the overeager Detective Santiago, and Stephanie Beatriz, as the feral Detective Diaz, are both winning and the background is slowly filling, in true Parks and Rec style, with a solid stable of hobby horses and punching bags. I wish the game Terry Crews were given opportunities to be funny that didn't rely on someone who looks like that being obsessed with things like this, and I wish I found Chelsea Peretti's adenoidal passive-aggression to be a fraction as amusing as the writers must. (Her irritating Gina leeches into nearly every scene, perhaps due to her stand-up persona being a known commodity in the writers' room.) The real trick going forward hinges, like the show itself, on star Andy Samberg. Outside of boat trips with his buddies, he has never played particularly well with others. Seeing if he can find a way to make his smartass Detective Jake Peralta do so will go a long way toward determining Brooklyn's future.
Early in its second season, The Mindy Project remains bursting with potential and rife with problems. The series has been in a state of near constant overhaul from the very beginning, chucking cast members overboard (so long, Stephen Tobolowsky! Arrivederci, Anna Camp and Amanda Setton!) and hauling in newcomers with wild abandon. Originally imagined as a sort of Bridget Jones for the Seamless generation, the show rebooted itself as an office comedy even though Mindy Kaling's writing has demonstrated as much interest in the vagaries of work as did Kelly Kapoor. Kaling brought on Ike Barinholtz as a writer and then, smitten, allowed him to gobble up huge swaths of the show as Morgan, a goony nurse.7 Through every permutation, The Mindy Project has fought so tenaciously to keep from drowning that often it's hard to tell whether it's swimming, sinking, or just splashing as loudly and messily as possible.
Near the end of the first season, things appeared to stabilize. Kaling wisely scooped up a number of 30 Rock writers the moment they became available, including Jack Burditt and recent Emmy winner Tracey Wigfield, and their ability to find limitless layers of weird located just beneath the surface of familiar things helped immeasurably. (They've also pushed Kaling away from her trademark spiky cuteness and toward a more tartly revealing model of shame-eating, bedroom-fumbling working womanhood — call her Liz Lime.) The show ignites anytime Kaling's Dr. Lahiri is paired with Chris Messina's charismatic lunkhead Dr. Castellano (it's even better when she's imitating his Fonzie-ish swagger). And the run of episodes last spring featuring Workaholics' Anders Holm and Chloë Sevigny as the doctors' significant others was riotously good, especially "Frat Party," a half-hour featuring Mindy accidentally disrobing while attempting to take down a stripper pole and Bill Hader getting repeatedly punched in the face.8
Last week, The Mindy Project hit the reset button yet again. With James Franco's very funny (and very problematic) guest turn over, Kaling shuffled her impressive Rolodex and added the terrific Adam Pally to the ever-expanding cast, though it remains to be seen just how — and if! — he'll be used. (The previous new addition, Xosha Roquemore, has thus far contributed little more than eye-rolling reaction shots and sassy one-liners.) Pastor Casey was radically morphed from Haiti-saving missionary to a DJing dilettante — and then shipped off the show entirely. If the silliness and speed of all of this was shocking, the end result was even more so.
In the waning minutes of the episode, as a lovely song by inexplicable guest stars the National played, Mindy and Casey stopped joking around and instead stumbled into one of those conversations familiar to anyone within spitting distance of 30: It was about how compromise is an essential part of growing up and how chasing your best self doesn't always make for the best relationship. The scene ended with Casey leaving and Mindy sobbing real tears. Sure, it was totally sudden and tonally inconsistent. But it also elevated the show to a more unexpected and vulnerable place. It's no secret that Kaling is obsessed with big-screen rom-coms, but what has consistently surprised about her charming, if maddeningly inconsistent, TV show is the way it has gotten the romance part right, even when that has come at the expense of the comedy. If this is the series that's lurking behind all the juggling and rejiggering, then I look forward to the next time things quiet down enough to reveal it.
Mindy remains a project, but then so, too, does Fox's Tuesday night. The ratings need to improve. Points of view need to stabilize. Some light patricide is required at the eight o'clock hour. But Kevin Reilly's revenge is no longer about what NBC lacks, it's more about what Fox has: namely, the most promising night on any network. Sometimes a heist can be a work of art in its own right. It's deeply pleasurable when scheduling seems intuitive, not cynical, and smart, creative shows appear to be having a conversation with each other. Fox Tuesdays aren't quite must-see — at least not yet. But I wouldn't dare miss out.