These are tough times at Fox, the network that ruled the 2000s on the strength of “American Idol,” and was the least-watched network last season. The utter ratings dominance of “Idol” seemed to discourage risk-taking at what had once been the edgiest network. And at what turned out to be the moment “Idol” stopped being unkillable, Fox doubled its music-themed reality programming, devoting two full nights to the forgettable “X Factor.” Fox clung to a strategy whose magic had worn off for far too long, and when it took risks, they were poorly chosen ones. How much credibility did former network head Kevin Reilly stake on the purposefully offensive “Dads”? Fox’s schedule now is composed largely of wheezy, past-their-prime shows (“Idol,” “The Simpsons,” “Glee,” the return of “24” this past summer), or dumb risks that test the the limits of broadcast TV just for its own sake (as with the gratuitously gruesome “The Following”).
Part of Fox’s problem is that it has no cohesive identity as a network. ABC has branded itself as a network particularly friendly to women and people of color, while CBS is where you go if you want competently made comedies or wildly violent procedural dramas. NBC, currently the top-rated network, has big, crowd-pleasing spectacles like “The Voice” and football. Fox has no real identity, and its programming strategy has seemed at times adrift. To Fox’s credit, it's probably the only network that’d take a big swing on a show like “Utopia,” with its sequestered cast members struggling to build a new society over the course of a year. To Fox’s detriment, that’s because “Utopia” is a pretty thin premise once you think about it for more than a second, one that any network with a brand identity other than “young people like edgy things!” would probably have rejected.
Fox has at least begun to pick up its snaps when it comes to scheduling -- something that, even in the age of the DVR, does still matter. Last year, “Dads” aired in a block that included the dopey, outlandish “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and the slightly more grounded “New Girl” and “The Mindy Project.” It was as schizophrenic as a block of four half-hour comedies can be. “Dads” is, thankfully, gone; “Brooklyn” has been moved to Sundays where it’ll be hanging out with the Simpsons and “Family Guy’s" Griffins, and Zooey Deschanel’s and Mindy Kaling’s sitcoms have a little room to breathe.
“New Girl” and “The Mindy Project” have been lumped together by critics (including, um, this one) since the latter’s debut; it’s a little unfair, probably. On the other hand, they’ve grown into natural time-slot partners -- literate ensemble comedies centered around a young woman who’s both professionally accomplished and neurotic when it comes to love. Both share enough of the loose, verbose DNA of ABC’s late “Happy Endings” that they were able to credibly cast one of that show’s stars (Damon Wayans Jr. on “New Girl,” Adam Pally on “Mindy”). And both are, along with "Brooklyn Nine-Nine," by miles the most competently made things on Fox.
If the network’s biggest problem is that it doesn’t know what it wants to be, these shows are the perfect antidote. They’re riding through classic sitcom dilemmas -- how to depict the coming-together or breaking up of a relationship without getting bogged down in mishegoss -- with extreme aplomb. Last night’s “Mindy Project,” about Mindy’s anxieties now that her long-simmering flirtation with a colleague has become a full-fledged relationship, told old stories about jealousy in a fresh, assured way. “New Girl” has just blasted through its breakup story line, allowing its characters to frankly pursue sex with others rather than gloomily Ross-and-Racheling it up.
Neither “New Girl” nor “The Mindy Project” is exactly a ratings dynamo, but they both have their audiences, and taken together, they provide a potential way forward for Fox. (“Mulaney,” the forthcoming sitcom starring former “Saturday Night Live” writer John Mulaney, could be a step in the right direction.) The network could, relying on these shows and "Brooklyn Nine-Nine," style itself as the thinking person’s broadcast network, providing the pleasures of old-school broadcast TV (which do indeed exist) with a level of affluent-viewer-attracting sophistication absent from, say, CBS. It might free them from the pressure for a massive breakout hit that has led to so many recent embarrassments. Fox has seemed preoccupied with trying to reinvent the wheel the past few years, overzealously playing catch-up with the other networks with shows like “Utopia.” Both “New Girl” and “The Mindy Project” were initially sold to the public, too, as pathbreaking shows with no antecedent, but they’ve grown into really straightforward sitcoms that nail the mechanics. There are far worse things to do.