There is a very good chance you have completely overlooked FOX’s new comedy “Ben & Kate” ahead of Tuesday’s premiere.
And who can blame you? On the surface, nothing about the show seems must-see. No legitimate A-list names are in the cast (though Nat Faxon, it should be noted, is an Oscar-winner) A simple “odd couple” premise that seems wildly unimaginative in 2012. A generic title that does nothing to claim permanent residence in a viewer’s memory.
Plus, when it comes to its new Tuesday comedies, FOX–and the media–clearly seems to have positioned “The Mindy Project” as the more high-profile premiere.
And, frankly, even a deeper investigation into the series might not be enough to overcome the significant branding challenges. The jokes are not tailor-made for repetition on Twitter and at the water cooler the next day. The characters are not groundbreaking game changers for the television community. No envelopes are pushed in the writing. No vast new territory is wandered in the storytelling.
But whether “Ben & Kate” overcomes these limitations and succeeds or succumbs to them and flops, one thing is irrefutable: it is the best comedy premiere of 2012.
Granted, given the dreck that is hitting the airwaves this season (including CBS’ very underwhelming “Partners” and ABC’s absolutely abysmal “The Neighbors”), calling it the best new comedy is not necessary a transcendent compliment.
So, to more accurately state how good this show is, let us say that although its ambitions are nowhere near as lofty as those of “Modern Family” or “How I Met Your Mother,” it is nearly as effective as their premieres were in execution.
Simply put, it is a very funny, very likable, very appealing thirty minute episode.
A take on the classic odd couple premise, “Ben & Kate” stars Nat Faxon and Dakota Johnson as a brother and sister whose bond is as unbreakable as their life statuses are different. Ben, the older brother, is an irresponsible, but well-intentioned “dreamer” who never truly grew up. Even though Kate is younger, she was forced to grow up after the unplanned birth of her daughter and now works hard to play the responsible parent, even if it means placing significant restrictions on her sense of fun and adventure.
Where most shows would base their entire palette of humor on this comedic clash of personalities, “Ben & Kate” instead makes the sadly-unusual decision to actually portray the two as real people who have emotions and depth beyond typical sitcom stereotypes.
Ben, though irresponsible, immature and wacky, is also a selfless guardian who embraces the opportunity to “protect” Kate and his niece Maddie, even when such protection blatantly counters his own interest. Kate, meanwhile, does not simply spend the entire half-hour snobbishly ridiculing Ben’s slacker lifestyle and instead projects a tangible sense of admiration (if not envy) for Ben and his wide-eyed willingness to “let go.”
The result is an organic, charming relationship between two characters who actually behave in relatable fashion. They banter, argue and connect not simply because that is what the script wants but because that is how humans would behave when thrust into similar situations.
For as much chemistry as they have together, Faxon and Johnson are also brilliant in their other on-screen dealings.
Though his performance is irrefutably over the top, Faxon works diligently to create consistency for Ben’s attitude, assuring that nothing comes across as being written simply for laughs or simply to make Ben a “quirky” character.
His facial reactions are a particular gem, with his visual assessment of others’ high-fives working wonders to sell the character. Even though the dialogue that follows is among the lamer, more predictable bits of the episode, his facial abhorrence at Maddie’s babysitter telling her to color inside the lines (and that the sky is blue, not green) superbly indicates the degree to which Faxon is invested in Ben.
That sense of investment–of belief–makes everything Ben does funny and captivating, even if the actual dialogue or action would be deemed “cliched” in any other sitcom. There is nothing particularly original about a character struggling to execute a K turn, stumbling through a declaration of love to an ex-girlfriend or painfully avoiding expletives in front of a young girl, and yet because Faxon is so committed to finding humor and honesty in every last detail, it all works.
Johnson’s character is a bit less defined and “out there” as Faxon’s, and as such, she does not completely “own” Kate the way he does Ben. But those writing her off are in for a rude awakening; she is tremendously capable in the role, mixing an unexpected knack for physical comedy with fantastic delivery to create one of the most appealing leads in primetime.
At the heart of the character is the utter non-pretentiousness with which it is written and portrayed. Whereas most actresses would aim for their best Zooey Deschanel and perform geeky, fabricated dialogue about her previous sexual prowess (“Before Maddie was born I was out there crushing ass left, right and center”) with their tongues firmly in their cheeks, Johnson captures the nuance of her insecurity and conveys the dialogue the way a legitimately-funny, socially-restricted human being would.
Insofar as no one in the world is going to believably replicate Zooey Deschanel, the decision is the correct one–and the Kate character is all the stronger for it.
That refusal to box Kate into the anal-retentive corner transforms what would otherwise be the “buzzkill” straightwoman into a sincere, flawed, endearing leading lady. Whether mocking the amusing, nonthreatening sexual advances of Ben’s friend Tommy or bombing in her attempt to be sexy for her boyfriend, Johnson is never winking at the camera and looking for audience approval that she is, indeed, quirky. She is simply being the character, and it assures that Kate, at her nicest and meanest, is always charming, always funny and always a great reason to tune in.
Helping Johnson’s cause is the breakthrough performance by Lucy Punch, who sinks every last tooth into the BJ character. From embracing the double-entendre associated with her initials to overloading five-year-old Maddie’s face with makeup to distract attention from her body (“you have no shape”), the character is beyond wacky, and it takes the commitment of a true expert to make it work. Punch is up for the challenge, shamelessly embracing the weirdness needed to create a valuable, complementary best friend character for Kate.
Precociousness is a near-prerequisite for young children in sitcoms, but Maggie Elizabeth Jones’ Maddie comes with far more nuanced characterization. She does not spend the episode shouting sarcastic lines and instead behaves like a child, even if her level of perception and wisdom might technically exceed her years. Her chemistry with Nat Faxon is particularly delightful; try not cracking a smile when she nods in approval at his decision to fire the babysitter. Try not falling in love with the show when they debate their backstory for their wedding crashing scheme.
Echo Kellum is given the least to do as Tommy, but his amusing, ceaseless pining for Kate is a constant source of chuckles. Given how limited and one-dimensional his character is in the pilot, however, he naturally seems like the biggest risk going forward. The writing better be up for the challenge of keeping him goofy, low-key and likable.
Individualized flaws or not, the characters all mesh beautifully–there is no evidence of a weak dynamic between the principle players. Coupled with the unrestrained sweetness and unshielded line readings, there is significant reason for optimism about the weeks ahead. Such episodes might not have their own version of the “aww” moment that comes at the end of this pilot, but if they involve these five characters in a “feel good” plot, it is hard to imagine them failing to deliver.
As a critic speaking directly to an online community, there is always a risk of attaching oneself to a more “traditional” comedy. This is not “Louie,” “Parks & Recreation” or “Community,” and a seal of approval should not be mistaken for a promise that viewers will laugh the way they do when watching those shows.
But for viewers who appreciate the importance of actors who immerse themselves in their roles and of characters who are infinitely likable, this is a slam dunk of a premiere. For people who appreciate quirky, oddball comedy but are not too proud to laugh at more obvious, physical jokes, this is a slam dunk of a premiere.
Much like “How I Met Your Mother,” rather than attempting to overwhelm with laughs, “Ben & Kate” is working to accomplish something far more fundamental: appreciation for characters and the plotline. Once viewers immerse themselves in the world, and it does not take long given the skillful acting and writing, their attachment serves to amplify every bit of enjoyment.
Going forward, Ben and Kate will each get laughs not simply because the writing is good, or even because Faxon and Johnson are great actors, but because what transpires will be funny for these characters in this universe. Again like “Mother,” the show seems to be on a track that results in the show being so likable and engaging that it can elicit enjoyment and smiles even on episodes that are “off” from a comedic standpoint.
But just in case premiere week viewers are more interested in instant, humorous gratification than character investment, “Ben & Kate” is sure to infuse a host of witty lines, quirky interactions and slapstick physical comedy in a way that will erase any regrets about committing 30 minutes to what is irrefutably the best half hour pilot this season.
FOX’s “Ben & Kate” premieres at 8:30PM on September 25, 2012