“A New Development” (season 1, episode 9)
History, humanity, and help
In “A New Development,” Benched’s philosophy goes from tacit to explicit, putting choice quotes in character’s mouths. “It’s the system that’s guilty.” “It’s unwise to ascribe motivations to others when life is so complex.” “Stop being a dick.”
When Cheryl, overloaded as they all are by a sudden onslaught of prosecutions of the city’s homeless population, asks for help triaging her cases, Nina introduces the idea of “the three Hs”: Share the client’s history, humanize them, and ask the jury for help. “A New Development” gives both Cheryl and Trent some history, some humanity, and a bit of help.
Benched consistently positions the overtaxed judicial system as the true enemy of the public defenders, district attorneys, and defendants alike. It’s the overburdened, unwieldy system that reduces individuals to statistics, overloads and underpays public defenders, and overfills the docket so that any case going to trial is seen as an indulgence instead of a legal right.
To the public defenders, Trent is the face of that enemy, the locus of their resentment and righteous indignation. As Nina’s ex—whose engagement precipitated her series-opening meltdown and ejection from corporate law—it’s even easier to cast him as a villain, though he’s written with distant sympathy and portrayed by Carter MacIntyre with well-judged cordiality.
“A New Development” dives into the idea of Trent’s antagonism with zest, then artfully reveals what’s actually happening beneath the surface. Trent, too, is trapped in an untenable position. For the sake of his current bosses and future political ambitions, he has to maintain a strong conviction rate. He’s pressured to make deals fast, not to serve justice or even to try cases.
In this episode, he’s also a tool used by powerful forces. A wealthy prospective buyer wants the streets cleared of homeless people before he’ll commit to a lucrative new shopping-area development, and Trent’s zealous prosecution is key to that agenda. He points out that he’s “just doing his job”; Nina, unintentionally conjuring up comparisons to lower-echelon Nazis, describes it as “just following orders.” But he navigates that unwieldy system, exploiting the institutional pressures that control them all and bending them to work for the greater good.
That’s where the three Hs come in. Trent’s plan hinges on his history with Nina. He knows she’s terrible with secrets, and he knows she’ll defend him if only to protect her own reputation, so he can count on her to spill his secret. (After it all plays out, he even thanks Nina for being “so dependable.”) The episode humanizes Trent, showing not just a savvy ability to outwit an institutional trap, but also a sense of humor about his own unsympathetic position and, crucially, a sense of true justice.
The third H is the most important. Trent helps, and maneuvers Nina into helping, at both institutional and individual levels. His machinations end the disproportionate prosecution of homeless defendants, even prompting the developer to donate sizably to a shelter for the indigent, Cheryl’s client is released, and the much-needed win allows her to keep her job.
Just as Trent represents the face of unfeeling competence, Cheryl is the face of feeling… and not so much of competence. Is it really a triumph to have her stay on as a PD if her clients end up in jail or released to live on the streets?
As Cheryl points out, most of her defendants will end up in jail no matter what, and on their way there, she’s giving them something they value: advice, consolation, or simple recognition of their humanity. Maria Bamford usually plays Cheryl with an air of dizzy disconnection, but here she brings touching depth to a quiet moment: “It’s so tough being in the system, and you’re seeing people on their worst day. I find a little humanity goes a long way.” Her scrapbook of notes and artwork from grateful clients is a great touch.
This legal workplace sitcom has always been a plucky show, unafraid to mix the harsh reality of the judicial system’s inequities with salty, snappy banter. But “A New Development” is more than a stinging sitcom indictment of a system gone wrong. It’s an example of how well-meaning but powerless individuals can use a broken institution against the powerful.
In its first few episodes, Benched leaned hard on Eliza Coupe’s talent for whip-fast rambling monologues and wild-eyed physical comedy, bolstering her with entertaining but underused supporting characters and a plausible but predictable will-they/won’t-they with a roguish co-worker. That show—the sitcom Benched started as—was entertaining and funny, if trifling.
It’s grown into a different show, and a better one. As Benched approaches the end of the season, it’s reliably funny, but also satisfying and affecting, rich with character-driven drama and an important message delivered in relatable, diverse stories. A few episodes in, Benched found its feet. It always had guts. Now it’s speaking from its its heart.
- Just to keep up, the voice in Cheryl’s head says “YOU DESERVE NOTHING!” and “… QUIT!”
- Carlos: “I hear there’s a basket of puppies outside to kick.” Trent: “How young are these puppies?”
- The reporter assumes Nina’s a DA, not a PD, “because you’re not dressed like a substitute teacher on his way to sign divorce papers.”
- That’s Lynne Marie Stewart of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia as Cheryl’s client, Annie Mundy (“former school bus driver, voracious reader, pizza lover, Libra”), but she’ll always be Miss Yvonne to me.
- Anxious about a last-minute change to her opening statement, Cheryl blurts out, “I can’t improv. I always go blue.”
- “I’m like Eva Braun but with none of the benefits!” I’m trying to think of the benefits of dating Hitler, and also trying really really hard not to think of the benefits of dating Hitler.
“A Solitary Refinement” (season 1, episode 10)
The lonely Nina defense
Speaking of heart, this is how you bring a romantic subplot to the forefront. Decent people muddling their way through the straits of a repressive institution is the philosophical heart of the show, and Nina and Phil’s connection is its emotional heart. Backing off from their flirtation for a few episodes, Benched allowed their natural chemistry as co-workers to develop and let viewers develop an appetite to see them thrown together again.
Not content with heart and romance, “Solitary Refinement” also packs in plenty of guest stars. Jim Rash appears as Nina’s unwilling client, Mr. Jimson, whose surprising success representing himself relies on “the lonely Nina defense.” He argues that no one is accusing his lawyer of stealing a car, but his alibi for the weekend in question is just as solid as hers would be: “In our respective homes alone, drinking wine from a box or while sitting inside of one. No loved ones calling to check in. No friends dropping in. Zero human contact for hours!”
Driving home her solitude primes Nina to reluctantly accept a lunch date with her old friend Francine (Erinn Hayes of Childrens Hospital) and a blind date with Francine’s friend Harold (Nat Faxon of Married), and to regret (maybe even resent) Francine’s request to be set up with Phil.
When her description of Phil as “a one-night-stand kind of guy” fails to dissuade Francine, Nina instead encourages him to pursue a fleeting, casual evening and nothing more. “I told her that you were the hit-it-and-quit it, one-and-done, woof-it-and-hoof-it, love-em-and-leave-em, lick-it-stick it-leave-before-you-get-a-ticket kinda guy, and she was all about it.” But to her growing dismay, Phil neither hits that nor quits that, and the two couples end up on a double date. Sort of.
I’m surely not the only viewer who immediately thought of Louie when Harold blurts out, “I saw a man die today.” It’s not particularly derivative, just an echo of a similar idea: A man heading to a first date sees a stranger reduced to a jumble of parts by a truck, which inspires him to set aside the misgivings that constrain him in daily life.
But Harold’s second invocation of “I saw a man die today,” delivered in Faxon’s best tremulous whine, changes the line from a revelation to a refrain. By the third time, it’s a dark punchline, one more excuse for his shabby, misguided desires.
Poor Carlos is the target of the shabbiest, most misguided desires in the episode. Treating sexual harassment as a punchline is shabby itself, but the script and performances make this story work. Carlos’ reactions are perfectly gauged, from his startled recoil at the bench when Judge Connor (Molly Shannon) first asks about his divorce to his nervous laughter upon finding her gift to his anxious foot shuffling as he says, “Of course I’m sure, why wouldn’t I be sure?” before filing a formal complaint.
Though it’s exaggerated for comic effect, the taunts of Carlos’ co-workers are lamentable but unfortunately plausible, and so is the ploy by which Judge Connor tricks him into (almost) rescinding his complaint. Maybe her husband is dead (though probably not both by pony-trampling and dog attack), but it doesn’t matter why you’re lonely, you’re still not allowed to transgress the rules of the court and the workplace to harass your subordinates.
Aside from the obviously actionable hostile environment of Judge Connor’s courtroom, a workplace romance can be disruptive, even damaging. The pre-consummation chemistry between Francine and Harold feels like a peek into different show where they are the Nina and Phil, and seeing Francine regretting the aftermath of their liaison gives Nina a peek into her possible future. The look that flits over her face at Francine’s “He used to be my favorite person at the office!” is especially poignant.
Before that conversation, “Solitary Refinement” is loaded with narrative cues suggesting it will end with a kiss or more: Nina’s loneliness, so palpable in the cold open; the trickled-down, third-hand reminder that life is short, regrets are many, and errant food trucks are everywhere; the example of Pauline and Harold throwing caution (and workplace protocol) to the wind; the hesitant but heartfelt hug after they meet for drinks. Instead, the episode closes with parallel shots of them on their respective couches, sending each other unflattering selfies.
That moment raises the the stakes even higher than a kiss or a roll in bed… because this is more than an office flirtation. This is a friendship, and that’s a lot to risk.
- The single frond of hair protruding from Jim Rash’s scalp was captivating as it wobbled in the air above his forehead like an antenna. Well-done, make-up crew. “No further talking, Your Honor! Sustained.”
- Cheryl: “Ooh, dry clean only. Kind of impractical for a sex tie.” Carlos: “Okay, everyone stop saying ‘sex tie.’”
- Mr. Jimson misnaming Nina Whitley as “Ms. Whitelady” is perfection.
- Phil is just plain wrong about crepes from a truck. A food truck provides crepes in their ideal state, served fresh and hot, slathered with butter and sugar, right from the pan. I’m not saying they’re worth a minor fictional character’s death, but I’m not saying they aren’t.
- Fancy. Tea-drinking, monocle-adjusting. You know, fancy.
- USA will air another pair of back-to-back episodes next week, including the season finale, starting at 10:00 p.m Eastern. See you back here next week to finish up the season.