At the beginning of “Downsizing,” Nina Whitley (Eliza Coupe) rejects the only apartment she can afford on a public defender’s salary. Realizing that the tiny studio can’t accommodate her furniture or her self-image, Nina is more determined than ever to charm her way back into “money law” to maintain her salary and lifestyle—even, as she blurts out to crusty boss Burt (Jack McGee), to maintain her skin: “I have needs. I have a very complicated T-zone and there isn’t any one product that can tame it.”
Nina’s sense of entitlement suffuses this episode. She “can’t, can’t, can’t” live in a studio apartment. She’s certain that she belongs “in corporate law among nice things,” and equally certain that one eloquent speech will land her back there. She snatches the fundraising speech away from Carlos (Oscar Nuñez) without compunction or even the courtesy of telling him. And she’s affronted that her former colleagues haven’t forgotten the destructive, bridge-burning fury of her exit.
But that entitlement has its virtues. It gives Nina her strength and her confidence, and in “Downsizing,” Nina begins to share that confidence with her new colleagues. Advising Cheryl (Maria Bamford) to “focus on that voice inside of you that says ‘That’s mine,’” she illustrates the difference between them: Nina hears that voice clearly and she ardently believes it.
Nina’s almost unassailable self-confidence drives her. It makes her unsatisfied with her current life, but it also makes her powerful. That audacious self-assurance lets her seek a meeting with Debbie Mathersons (Catherine Reitman), who won the partnership Nina thought was hers and whom Nina denounced in the pilot’s first scene.
Debbie is given no motivation to confide her blackmail to Nina—not even the plausible excuse that her violent outburst robbed her of credibility, so there’s no danger in revealing secrets to her. Debbie’s admission doesn’t make much sense, but her blinkered arrogance makes Nina’s self-possession look grounded and realistic, and Reitman endows her with a bright-eyed soullessness that almost sells that unmotivated revelation. (Comedy Bang! Bang! viewers might remember Catherine Reitman as Lisa Wertz, co-owner of the Man Cave (“more like a man’s grave!”) full of Prayboys, and she’s Maureen Ponderosa, Dennis’ dead-toothed ex-wife, on It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia.)
Like Debbie’s casual confession, several of this episode’s gags and plot points don’t stand up to even casual scrutiny. Did anyone need Phil’s insulting “jag-bag” explained? (“That’s what you get when you combine jag-off corporate lawyers and douchebag corporate lawyers.”) And speaking of jag-bags, why is Nina blindsided by Trent’s presence at a big-name money-law jag-bag gala? Benched is trying to play it both ways: In the pilot, she’s understandably shocked to find her corporate-law ex-fiancé serving as deputy DA. Now she’s just as stunned to see him at an event routinely attended by all their corporate-law colleagues and friends.
For that matter, if jag-bag corporate lawyers attend this event annually, why has Nina never heard of it? She was a grade-A money-law jag-bag. And is the viewer intended to mistake a cater-waiter for a rich philanthropist, as Cheryl does? I kept waiting for some layered joke playing on our awareness of her obliviousness, but… nope.
Benched is never at its best when it’s hitting traditional sitcom beats. Its strength lies in the idiosyncratic deliveries and dynamics of its actors and in the weird, random tangents of their dialogue. In the pilot, Nina’s vase-smashing exit is distorted and exaggerated: Did she “bash Michael Bolton over the head with a bowl,” “smash a vase over Elton John’s head,” or go “all Gary Busey and smash a lamp in George Michael’s face”? In “Downsizing,” Burt continues this run of tall tales with Nina “smashing a million-dollar vahs from Eddie Rabbitt,” and his reproving patter (“What the hell is wrong with you? ‘I Love The Rainy Night’? [sic] ‘You And I’? Juice Newton? Don’t you get out?”) is as funny as any of the episode’s actual punchlines.
Nina’s meltdown during her speech does make narrative sense. Benched has established Trent as Nina’s greatest weakness, whose mere presence reduces her to stumbling, blinking, and rambling. And Coupe’s choppy, desperate delivery makes the disjointed diatribe excruciating, especially the conclusion that “being poor is a crime.”
By the end, Nina relinquishes some of her entitlement along with her L-shaped couch, settling into her tiny studio with a loveseat appropriate to her station in life. She’s accepted her role, for now, realizing that the comfortable life she once led afforded her the finest in homes, Hermès bags, and skin-care products, but also shielded her from the realities of life for those who can’t pay a fat retainer to a private lawyer… and those realities are far more painful than a small apartment or a less-luxurious skin-care regime.
- “It’s my best chance to meet a fancy guy like the kind you used to get!”
- “She cried and she cried and she cried, and then she got her period… God, I loved the Girl Scouts.”
- Carlos (Oscar Nuñez) gets a little more airtime and action in “Downsizing,” but he also smiles and nods a lot. Hang in there, viewers: You’ll see more of Carlos next week.
- Debbie’s quiet chirps of “nope” as Nina spirals into revealing babble with philanthropist Maria Keeley (Bre Blair) made me laugh so hard I had to rewind the scene.
- “I gotta go see a man about a something’s burning.”