“Campaign Contributions” (season 1, episode 11)
The wheels come off, and it feels good
The opening seconds of “Campaign Contributions” show how a morning routine relies on habit and muscle memory. Nina rolls over, hits the alarm, and pulls the blankets over her head in a gesture of defeat before the day has even begun.
Then consciousness asserts itself over habit, and she smiles a broad, bright Eliza Coupe grin. After a year of waking up to “a mixed feeling of dread and inadequacy, like this is going to be the new worst day of my life,” Nina feels better. Nina feels good.
She breezes into her office, chattering all the way that nothing can go wrong, plops herself down on her office chair, and falls to the floor as it collapses under her. Phil warns her that the wheels came off, but she plows ahead on the strength of habit and optimism.
Television shows often operate on habit, too, lapsing into familiar patterns instead of moving the story forward or developing characters. Benched keeps breaking those patterns. Driven at first by lightning-fast banter with a conventional opposites-attract sub-plot between its leads, it moved the romance to the back burner while it evolved into a character-driven comedy with a message. Mid-season Benched audaciously grappled with the serious subject of the inadequate legal system and the individuals—lawyers, clients, and judges alike—mired within it.
Starting with last week’s “Solitary Refinement,” Benched puts Nina and Phil’s romantic chemistry center stage again. In “Campaign Contributions,” she persuades him to pursue the Public Defender Of The Year award, a prize so lowly the recipient pays for the plaque. They spend an evening working in tandem to charm the law professors and judges who choose the winner. Walking arm-in-arm, swapping silent smiles, setting up each other’s jokes, swiping olives from each other’s drinks—they look like a couple.
And then the wheels come off.
It’s just plain fun to see Nina, usually so spiky and defensive, brimming over with good cheer. She attributes her new buoyancy to getting over Trent, but it seems obvious that it’s more than that. She lost her fiancé a long time before she lost everything else: her anticipated partnership, her corporate job, her luxury apartment, her Mercedes, her well-padded bank account, her sense of self.
As a PD, Nina’s found more than a new job. She has a new sense of purpose. And she’s found a new self, a job worth doing, a person worth being. Even her wardrobe reflects her sense of place, the soft green of her blouse (seen above) echoing the industrial-green of the office walls. Nina is finally in the right place. She belongs here.
There’s a certain inevitability to “Campaign Contributions,” but that’s not a bad thing. There’s a difference between tired predictability and paying off well-established beats.
It’s inevitable that Walt (Albert Tsai) is thrilled to stand beside Big Brother Trent in court “sending bad guys to the slammer!” and inevitable that a sympathetic defendant leads to his disillusionment. (One thing that isn’t inevitable or even fitting: Several times, the PDs defend their work to Walt by citing a defendant’s innocence. A client needn’t be innocent to deserve a spirited defense.)
Tsai’s zeal isn’t surprising to anyone familiar with Trophy Wife’s Bert, but it’s equal parts adorable and hilarious, and I couldn’t help sympathizing with his enthusiasm upon learning the legal definition of mayhem is “the wanton and permanent removal of a person’s limbs.” “Super cool! Is there going to be blood involved? What are they going to use to get the limbs off?” My questions exactly, Walt.
It’s inevitable that Phil chases the award not to live up to Nina’s inspirational speeches, but to defeat popular favorite Mitch, and it’s inevitable that Chris Parnell plays Mitch as a handshaking, nicknaming toady as shameless as he is pathetic. It’s inevitable that Phil ultimately admits he cares—about the job, about the award, about his reputation, about Nina’s opinion.
From the moment she enters a conversation at The Rutherford Club with “That’s something I never learned at Stanford,” it’s inevitable Nina will walk away with that award somehow. Fitting into her new life doesn’t prevent her from navigating the halls of power. All it takes is Trent’s unsolicited nomination to put her over the top.
After an evening standing shoulder-to-shoulder with him at The Rutherford Club, straightening his tie, paying him compliments, and evoking feelings that Carlos compares to (respectively) Titanic, My Fair Lady, and Moulin Rouge, it’s inevitable that Nina will hear a knock at her door and expect Phil.
And it’s inevitable that Trent is at her door instead.
- Phil cutting Mitch’s tie is a gift for those of us who’ve been pretending Benched is an informal sixth season of The Wire.
- “Is that why they made ten Law & Orders and none of them are about public defenders?”
- “Everyone here looks like the people I run over in Grand Theft Auto.”
- “Is it me?” “It’s Phil!” “Is it me?” “No, it’s Phil.” “Is it me?” “It’s you!”
- “We get beat up so much in court, they think it’s nice to give us a win.” “But just one of us and only once a year.”
- Trent’s congratulations to Nina turn into nostalgia: “It’s lonely at the top. Remember when we crushed the Hansen’s Easter egg hunt?” That glimpse of his ruthless streak explains why they fit so well together in their old life.
“Brief Encounters” (season 1, episode 12)
“So, are you guys still happening, or…?”
Nina’s fate lies in the hands of a paper-pusher, and the cast and creators of Benched probably knows how that feels. This comedy has blossomed over its short first season, but it seems to have garnered little critical attention since its first few episodes. Here’s hoping the people in charge of Benched’s future are more merciful than Donna, the head clerk who wrangles the forms at the courthouse.
It’s a treat to see Yvette Nicole Brown play up her caustic side, and she delivers most of Donna’s lines in brisk deadpan. It’s a shame her guest role isn’t woven into the show, allowing for interaction with more cast members, but in narrative terms, it makes sense. (And if you have Community coursing through your bloodstream like I do, it’s disorienting to hear her cry out “Geoffrey!” to someone other than Joel McHale.) In any case, Nina wants to keep her trip to the clerk’s office—and the reason for it—from her colleagues.
So, are Nina and Phil still happening, or…?
Phil wants to play it both ways. He thinks he’s an easy-going guy who’s friends with everyone, and he thinks he’s a lone wolf. Morris (Cedric Yarbrough) forces this contradiction into the open when Phil asks him for a little favor between friends. Morris takes a long beat before asking “We’re friends?”
When Phil blows him off for lunch, Morris chastises him as “one of those glib guys. You’re one of those guys who says shit they don’t mean like ‘Looking forward to it!’” And he’s right.
That’s the downside of playing it cool. Phil keeps people at arm’s length because “it’s easier,” but that distance costs him intimacy without preserving his secrets. When he stumblingly confesses to Morris, “I think I like Nina,” Morris laughs. “Whoa, you’re just now realizing that?” Everyone else has known it from the beginning. Everyone but Nina, whom he keeps at arm’s length, too.
Phil isn’t the only one who misread a romantic cue this week. I was sure Nina was setting herself up for heartache with Trent, who describes their night together as “just uninhibited, carefree fun” and hustles out of her bed early in the morning. But soon he’s planning out their future together, complete with a Portuguese water dog and formal disclosure of their ongoing relationship. (“Or what, they’re going to take away our license to practice law?” “Yes, that’s exactly what they’ll do.”)
Trent has always been complexly crafted for a tertiary character, balancing his compassion (as secret savior of the homeless, patient deal-wrangler, devoted Big Brother) with quiet intelligence, affable reserve, and a hidden competitive streak, which makes him complicated and appealing enough to be a credible romantic partner—and a credible romantic rival. “He is handsome, he is successful, and he smells like Christmas in Barbados.” But he doesn’t give her butterflies.
Not much gives me butterflies, but Nina and Phil’s kiss on the courthouse steps did, especially after the lingering romantic tension of “Solitary Refinement.” Heck, the whole show gives me butterflies. Benched isn’t perfect, but it’s smart, irreverent, and ardent, and it delivers an important message wrapped up in affecting characters and ready laughs. I’d take this scrappy, savvy Phil of a show over a well-heeled, ambitious Trent of a sitcom any day.
- “I might not be dead inside!”
- Nina’s outburst in the clerk’s office made me wonder if she’s still attending anger management.
- Phil channels Lloyd Dobler: “Actually, I don’t want to bring anything or buy anything or make anything for this party, and I don’t want to chip in to buy anything or make anything as a group, and I don’t want to buy or bring anything that needs to be bought or brought. Does that cover everything?”
- Burt’s office is hard on anuses. Burt took (permanent) temporary leave to recover from complications following hemorrhoid surgery; now Geoffrey needs a special chair to accommodate his prolapsed anus.
- Nina confides that her “friend” had “a crazy night,” and Cheryl responds, “Oh, me too! My cat started talking to me and I realized, oh, I’m out of my pills.” I’m not a fan of throw-away jokes about mental illness, but Bamford, who’s refreshingly frank both in her stand-up and in interviews about her own mental health issues, gets carte blanche.
- In their last exchange of the season finale, Nina asks Phil “Can you just… not disappear?” From the bottom of my heart, I’m asking the same of Benched. Congarbalations, Mima!