Ben And Kate debuts tonight on Fox at 8:30 p.m. Eastern.
Erik Adams: Strain is one of the great unspoken comedy killers, and it’s almost always the element that drives a sitcom pilot into the ground. Blame the process of getting a TV show on the air: There’s so much time that passes between the filming of a pilot, its pick-up, and the time the pilot debuts that by the time that episode makes it to air, it’s been reworked in a myriad of ways that would be impossible to replicate on a weekly production schedule. And when the pilot wasn’t all that funny to begin with, the strain to make it funnier through script revisions, recasting, awkward overdubs, Frankensteinian edits, or (God forbid) studio-audience sweetening only serves to make the thing less funny. The strain on the part of the show becomes pain on the part of the viewer, who yearns for a show that’s not pulling muscles and snapping tendons in pursuit of a few cheap laughs.
Aside from a few points near the end of the episode where plot wrests control of the wheel from character, the pilot episode of Ben And Kate exhibits that longed-for amount of effortlessness. A game cast, a hilarious script, and easy-going direction even manage to play down what could be a prohibitively high-concept premise: Ben Fox (Nat Faxon) never grew up, while an unexpected pregnancy forced his sister, Kate (Dakota Johnson) to grow up too quickly. When the free-spirited brother accepts the job of nannying the sister’s 5-year-old daughter, Maddie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones), it’s an apparent win-win that will introduce some routine and responsibility into Ben’s life, while decreasing the burdens of single-parenthood on Kate. It helps that the show’s logline doesn’t come into play until the final act of the pilot: Before Ben accepts the job as Maddie’s caregiver, the episode wrings a ton of laughs from a riff-heavy sense of humor and a palpable sense of history that’s reinforced by the cast’s immediate chemistry.
Ben And Kate would be DOA if no spark existed between Faxon and Johnson, but the duo—both in their inaugural outings as series leads—embody a lived-in brother-sister relationship that tempers their occasional frustrations with a genuine sense of love and admiration. This initial outing could’ve easily entailed 22 minutes of Johnson shouting “get a job” at Faxon while the Oscar winner (he shares The Descendants’ Best Adapted Screenplay honor with long-time writing partner Jim Rash and Alexander Payne) cavorts about her apartment in a parade of silly costumes. Helpfully informed by the real-life relationship between creator Dana Fox and her brother Ben, there’s a healthy dose of understanding between Fox’s onscreen surrogate and her Tasmanian Devil of a brother. When Ben reveals the true motivation behind his latest drop-in visit—he intends to crash the wedding of the ex-girlfriend he exclusively referred to as “the future Mrs. Ben Fox”—Johnson’s reaction authentically broadcasts that heart-encircled sobriquet’s place in the siblings’ vocabulary.
There’s a danger in dwelling too much on the past while trying to establish the past and the present of a series, but Ben And Kate expertly employs the lessons taught by other self-mythologizing sitcoms like Friends, How I Met Your Mother, and Happy Endings, grounding its characters in a back-story and honoring that back-story at every turn. Very little information is thrown out in the pilot that isn’t used in some form later on—even the grainy flashback footage of young Ben and Kate that opens the episode plays into a later cutaway and a sweet, relationship-affirming callback in the crashed-wedding epilogue. Some of the show’s blossoming mythology is run-of-the-mill sitcom material—Kate had a “fat phase”; Ben’s best friend Tommy (Echo Kellum) holds a long-burning torch for Kate, even though they only made out once—but flashes of cracked brilliance shine through those moments, as evidenced by Ben’s apparent and unexplained fixation on Portugal.
It’s difficult to say how much of that history was built into Fox’s pilot script and how much is the result of off-the-cuff character- and scene-painting encouraged by the episode’s director, Judd Apatow acolyte and Ben And Kate executive producer Jake Kasdan. In line with his work on New Girl (to which he also provides a guiding hand as EP), Kasdan is emerging as the James Burrows of the single-camera set, the scion of a showbiz family who’s become a punchline-whisperer for new sitcoms. Perhaps this is due to the lack of an overwhelming presence like Zooey Deschanel’s initial conception of Jess Day, but the Kasdan style lifts Ben And Kate’s première to greater comedic heights than the New Girl pilot—and that extends beyond evidently improvised bits like the orally fixated crash course in seduction given by Lucy Punch’s BJ. (Punch, by the way, is a revelation in this pilot, and for reasons beyond the fact that I didn’t realize she was British when I saw Bad Teacher. She’s in the pole position to be Ben And Kate’s Max Greenfield, for sure.) A mid-episode driving sequence piles on the laughs with the longest three-point turn in sitcom history, a translation of the rapid-fire pace of the show’s ad-libbed (or seemingly ad-libbed) moments to a sequence that obviously required some planning beyond instructing Faxon to throw out extra jokes at the end of a take. It’s just a further example of Ben And Kate’s startlingly assured voice and world that a gag like that could fit so comfortably with the rest of the episode. It can’t hurt that Fox (a first-time creator who also did a spell on New Girl as a producer) has basically lived in this world for her whole life.
Of course, plot finds a way to creep into the proceedings, as it must, because this is still a network sitcom and “momentum” still cagily refuses to be defined as “Ben and Tommy have a conversation in luchador masks while Maddie dons a pair of night-vision goggles.” The scenes involving the wedding and Kate’s too-good-to-be-true beau are as forced as Ben And Kate’s first episode gets, but that’s a small price to pay for the alternately hilarious and poignant sequence where Ben, Tommy, and Kate rehearse their wedding-crashing strategy. The introduction of more rigidly defined story elements will be crucial to keeping the show’s stakes from falling too low, and the pilot lays such a solid foundation that you can almost take it on faith that the “plots,” so to speak, will spin more organically from the characters as all involved with Ben And Kate get to know those characters better. It’s impressive that they already know them so well to begin with, but if the chance to dig both forward and backward in the ensemble’s shared history didn’t exist, then the show might not have made it to series. As Kate says at one point of tonight’s episode, “If I were you, I would bet on Ben Fox”—and that confidence can be extended to everyone else onscreen and behind the scenes as well.
Molly Eichel: Erik, I completely agree with your sentiment about Ben And Kate’s effortlessness, especially considering the show’s two main characters. When there’s a chance the adjective “wacky” could be ascribed to any of the principles of a television show, there’s a constant threat that said wackiness will be overwhelming, trading fleshed-out characterization for outlandish pratfalls and sub-human stupidity, especially in show that’s supposedly grounded in reality. It’s not sustainable and it becomes tiresome, especially because most shows are forced to broaden the wackiness as the series ages (see: Stinson, Barney). My biggest fear before watching Ben And Kate was how far the show would take Ben’s über-slacker. While he sometimes comes close, Ben never feels like Homer Simpson come to life. That’s in part thanks to Dana Fox, but also largely due to Faxon. His facial expressions alone are perfect for the part, plying a vacant look that’s been perfected over years of playing loveable idiots (he was last seen as one of the few highlights in Broken Lizard’s The Babymakers).
Fox (the network, not the television family or its real-life creator) has always done well with slightly off family sitcoms like Married… With Children and Raising Hope, and Ben And Kate is no exception. These Fox shows are not made of Cleavers, but deeply flawed people who stick together because no one is else could love them as much as those obligated to by blood. In the non-traditional family setup, Kate would be the shrew-wife, but she’s learned the “if you can’t beat ’em…” lesson one too many times and she isn’t left as the person in the show who is coldly not allowed to have fun. If her ragtag family-plus are going to crash a wedding, at least they’re going to do it right. What I found interesting about Kate in the “mom” role was that she was not singularly defined through her relationship with Maddie—who, thankfully, isn’t written as a cloying, “kids say the darnedest things” joke machine. The pilot spends a good deal of time establishing the relationship between Maddie and Ben, so Kate’s character can be seen as a single woman first, who has her own issues that don’t originate from motherhood.
Johnson is at her best when she’s playing up against Faxon, but she gets completely swallowed up when she shares scenes with the fabulous Punch. Punch’s BJ is what Catherine Tate’s Nellie should have been on The Office. Both actresses are excellent physical comedians who throw themselves (often literally) into roles—Punch in particular can change the entire force behind a line with the correct emphasis. “Do you know what ‘fanny’ means in my country?” BJ asks Kate. “Do you know what BJ means in mine?” Kate retorts. “Very well indeed,” BJ responds, playing off her causal sluttiness while never apologizing for it.
I didn’t find Ben And Kate outright, LOL-filled, but with a show like this, that’s okay. The lack of guffaws may be seen as one of the supposed determinants of toning down a ostensibly wacky character, but it also makes them bearable to be around when the initial pratfalls start falling flat (see, again: Stinson, Barney). For a show like Ben And Kate, it’s less important to me that I’m hit with laugh line upon laugh line because I want to continue to be with these characters and see them progress. They have plenty of time to make me laugh later on.