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This episode of Benched expands its universe a bit, spending some time outside the courtroom and the public defender’s office. Its previous excursions have been brief (a glimpse of Nina’s downsized apartment) or work-related (a gala to thank benefactors, a night in jail) or desperate (sad, lonely co-workers raging their faces off). “Curry Favor” gives these overworked characters some semblance of a social life, showing us their homes and evenings out as they get comfortable away from the office.

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That suits the episode, which shows Benched at its most comfortable and assured. For the first time since the pilot, everything is meshing. Backing off from Nina and Phil’s flirtation lets Eliza Coupe and Jay Harrington develop some much-needed camaraderie. Their deliberate retreat to collegiality and the accompanying brittle repartee (“So I’m gonna be like, ‘Hey, tough case today, huh?’” “And I’m gonna be like, ‘Ugh, I hate Mondays!’”) effectively conveys the rapport and tension between the two while allowing other relationships to take center stage.

Those other relationships are the heart of this episode, and I love how the writers swerved Nina’s story in an unexpected direction, with Edie Perch (Annie Sertich) set up as an obvious antagonist only to bloom into a generous, sympathetic fellow professional who understands all of Nina’s quirks and outbursts. Coupe and Sertich play the new friendship with convincing ease and energy, making their immediate connection feel more fun than implausible. Nina’s not wrong when she exults, “You just get it.”

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The revelation that her new BFF is also a perjuring fraud shakes Nina’s confidence, but it reiterates what’s coming to be a central idea of the series. It’s an adversarial system, but there are no unmitigated adversaries. Instead of populating the show with villains and heroes, Benched shows the justice system as a broken bureaucracy, and in “Curry Favor,” part of what’s broken in that system is the people.

Edie would do anything to be a good friend. It’s monstrous that her anything includes criminally falsifying evidence, and pathetic that she’s tried to curry favor with previous BFFs by “fudging” the lab results on eight-nine cases to date. “She’s a one-woman fudge factory!” Even as she’s hauled off in cuffs, Edie fawns and tosses compliments to Nina, still trying to manufacture the affection she desperately needs reciprocated.

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Carlos, who’s bunking with Phil for week, also goes to great lengths to help out his friend, and he also misreads his friend’s needs. The gambling story feels at first like it’s hitting predictable beats, but—echoing Nina and Phil’s self-conscious recasting of themselves as “simple work friends”—the story plays out with appealing self-awareness.

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Carlos’ shamming (ably conveyed by Oscar Nuñez: “Yep, just handed it over! ‘Two bets, please!’ All that money!”) telegraphs that of course he didn’t place Phil’s bet, but his extra level of deception was a welcome turn to a familiar story. Faking a long-shot tip to scare Phil off his reckless wagering demonstrates both an admirable level of commitment to his friend and a complete failure to understand the psychology of a gambler—and especially someone as imprudent as Phil. A guy with a couch fork and a collapsing ceiling isn’t going to shy away from risk.

This episode demonstrates Phil’s disconnection from reality. With $50,000 in expected winnings, he plans to pay off his longstanding debts, fix up his home’s plumbing, plaster, and broken windows, buy himself a house on Cod (“I think people call it The Cape.” “Not after we buy it.”), buy his mother a house, buy a boat (“I’m going to name it Pizza because I love pizza!”), buy the new boss a private elevator, take a ride on the Virgin Galactic, and arrange for Boring Larry to meet his real father.

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But he’s attentive enough to pick up on Nina’s moral quandary, and he does the right thing so she doesn’t have to. Despite their formal declaration that they’re just work buddies, Phil’s the only person in “Curry Favor” who intuits exactly what his friend needs and does it unhesitatingly.

Except for one slightly clumsy courtroom scene with Phil blurting out suspiciously relevant racehorse names (“Guilty As Charged!”), the episode boasts strong, consistent themes and plotting and equally strong writing. Best of all, it had me laughing out loud over and over, which is all a comedy really needs to do.

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Stray observations:

  • Phil’s bookie, Farley, is another example of the show’s tendency to avoid outright antagonists. He’s not lurking in the background to threaten a kneecapping. He’s just giving Phil a friendly reminder while he shows his brother-in-law, an aspiring paralegal, around the courthouse and PD’s office.
  • As Burt’s extended-leave replacement, Geoffrey with a g (“Like the Toys R Us giraffe”), Gary Anthony Williams didn’t have much to do this week, but almost everything he said got at least a small laugh from me, even simple reaction lines like “Why aren’t you working?”
  • For posterity, and because no one does rambling insults like Coupe does rambling insults, here’s Nina’s rant for her one-act, Ugly Pants: “Oh, and such a dumb pantsuit! Look at those pants! That is terrible! Who wears that? Ugh, gross, that is an ugly pantsuit!”
  • Annie Sertich plays the fellow diner who chides Dwight for advising the chef on knives in The Office’s “A Benihana Christmas.” Even in that tiny role, she made an impression on me.
  • This is a pure technicality, but maybe someone in the comments can explain why Nina’s client, who was found “literally covered in cocaine,” was tested for opiates.
  • “What’s next, I’m opening up a box with your thumbs in it?” “Why are you opening a box with my thumbs?” “Because you don’t have thumbs!”
  • Another week with no Cheryl. We all understand that a tangle of budgeting and scheduling issues dictates who appears on a sitcom and when. But still my heart cries out for Bamford, always Bamford. Say it loud and there’s music playing. Say it soft and it’s almost like praying.

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