TCA 2012: It Took a While, But Fox Is Full-Time Funny Now (Analysis)

A good day at the Television Critics Association summer press tour reveals that the network's Tuesday comedy block could be a winner.
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Not every network or cable channel that comes before the nation’s television critics and writers ends up having the day go swell. We are an odd collection of interests, capable of nitpicking the life out of you or simply demanding that you not forget your failures, which we had to endure. And plenty more people in the room aren’t even a part of the Television Critics Association, so God knows what they’ll say.

For its part, Fox had a day to remember on Monday.

TCA 2012: Live Updates

The So You Think You Can Dance? panel, if you’re into that kind of thing, woke everybody up. The network was able to showcase its two promising sitcoms --The Mindy Project and Ben and Kate -- and allow creators Mindy Kaling and Dana Fox to shine in front of a tough crowd (which they did, particularly Fox). Entertainment president Kevin Reilly then set the bar fairly high for his peers when he walked on stage, pulled out his cell phone and dialed Mariah Carey so she could confirm, via speaker phone, that she just agreed to a deal to be a judge on American Idol.

By turning what could have been a negative -- two judges leaving Idol, the perception of it getting tarnished, etc., Fox instead lands a big name and mostly avoids anything fiercely negative about a franchise that could be in decline.

Following that turn, its mediocre fall drama The Mob Doctor failed to light the fuse of excitement but the session was quickly followed by The X Factor -- and Simon Cowell always delivers in these interview sessions. There’s also interest in seeing new judges Britney Spears and Demi Lovato, particularly the former. Clips of the second season make it look like all the judges -- including Spears -- will be appropriately critical.

TCA 2012 Fox Recap: Simon Cowell, Britney Spears, J.J. Abrams Offer Praise (and Jabs)

A success, that panel was followed by Gordon Ramsay reminding everyone that even though he screams and swears on his, what -- nine series? -- he’s actually quite charming in person. His latest is Hotel Hell and one would assume viewers who like his series -- and he wouldn't have 16 of them if people didn’t like him -- will turn out for this one. If that didn’t quite match the earlier buzz, the final panel -- about the final season of Fringe -- was one of those unexpectedly touching and informative gatherings where everybody can feel pretty special that a sci-fi series that took a lot of wild chances but never became much of a hit, will be allowed to go out on its terms and tell a full story.

Pretty rare, indeed. The feel-good buzz was nice. So, yeah, the massive preparation that goes into a TCA day paid off for Fox. But the takeaway from all of these hours happened early on. Fox, very stealthily, has managed to turn one of its historical weaknesses -- developing non-animated comedy series -- into a strength.

In the fall, it will have a Tuesday comedy block -- Raising Hope, Ben and Kate, New Girl and The Mindy Project -- that can stand up to any other network (and they’ve all made strides in recent years, as comedy on broadcast networks has been in a creative bloom).

TCA 2012: Britney Spears Talks 'X Factor,' Simon Cowell Slings 'Idol' Barbs

We’ll have to see how Ben and Kate and The Mindy Project round into form after their pilots, but the pilots are very promising indeed. And sometimes the best money spent at these TCA sessions is to get your creative people in front of doubting critics and let them show everybody that A) they’re funny in person and B) they know what they’re doing with their series (sometimes this even means admitting that some elements need to be tightened up or improved). It probably couldn’t have gone any better for series creators Kaling and Fox, who guided their cast and producers through engaging sessions.

And it really can’t be overstated how important (and difficult) it is for networks to assemble comedy blocks where all the parts are working, not just one massive hit carrying three other shows.

Fox has a legitimately funny Tuesday waiting for fans in the fall. One possible trouble spot, competition-wise, is in the 9 p.m. hour when ABC puts Happy Endings and Don’t Trust the B--- In Apartment 23 up against New Girl and Mindy.  All of those shows are worth watching, if you like comedy that means an unfortunate face-off. But hey -- spark up the DVR.

TCA 2012: Fox Chief on 'American Idol' Shake-Up, 'Glee's' Future and Emmy Disappointment

The audience will decide, as it always does, but there are a lot of quality sitcoms to choose from and it’s good to see Fox right there in the scrum, bringing some comedic muscle. Raising Hope and New Girl were the building blocks for what now looks like a welcome comeback at Fox (its failure in the non-animated comedy department was one of the industries most inconceivable problems, given Fox’s history and Reilly’s good eye).

In a strategy that worked for New Girl, the network is going to put The Mindy Project and Ben and Kate online starting Aug. 27. Make a point to check them out, because when that Tuesday block finally coalesces in the fall, it will be something that was a long time coming.


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