This is the least sympathetic Nina Whitley has been since her enraged exit from corporate law. Entering her interview with client Yolanda Hernandez, a.k.a. Baby Jones (Sheilynn Wactor), Nina complains about the jailhouse stench to the defendant stuck in the squalor. Not deigning to sit, she rushes through the consultation, ignoring her client’s repeated, emphatic “I’m not taking no deal!” When Baby Jones’ mild brush-off unbalances her and sending her tumbling, Nina doesn’t speak up—or even glance up—as Morris (Cedric Yarbrough) hauls Jones out of the courtroom in cuffs to add assault to her rap sheet.
Nina’s more concerned about her Louboutins than her client, and the show hits that idea repeatedly. The episode opens on those shoes, red soles flashing as as Nina tips-taps into the interview room. She fusses over a scuff mark as her client is dragged back to lock-up. She specifically asks the intake clerk to baby her shoes while she’s in custody, but dismisses Jones’ anger over another night in jail as “a giant conniption fit.”
But despite her spoiled elitism, Nina has more in common with her client than she suspects. The little flick to the arm that Nina gives Morris isn’t much different from Baby Jones’ swat to brush off Nina’s condescending hand. Both small gestures are characterized as assault, and both women ultimately defend themselves with the same words: “I didn’t do anything!” Nina spends a hard night in a cell with Baby, both there for the same reason: for a guy. “Whatever, we’re not that dissimilar,” Nina inevitably concludes.
This isn’t a revelation to anyone but Nina, because no one else thinks she’s the special snowflake she fancies herself. The episode’s two runs where others helpfully pre-empt her self-assessment (“Priss? Snob? Brat?” “Tightass, that’s it!” and “Brat?” “Sissy?” “Bougie?” “Princess?” Skinny bitch?” “Barbie?” “Dipshit?” “Fancypants?”) show Benched at its best, highlighting the actors’ and writers’ ability to reel off fast-paced silliness and puncturing Nina’s self-importance. (Jocelyn Ayanna, credited only as “Inmate,” deserves a nod for endowing a small, stereotypically-written character with real specificity and humor.)
Phil, who sees himself as a rakish lone wolf, is similarly surprised how he’s perceived. Predictably, his cavalier cynicism shields a sad outsider terrified of dying alone. Carlos knows this, not just from years of listening to his self-delusional patter, but because Phil’s said so, more than once. (His rebuttal when Carlos gently broaches the subject: “Whoa, whoa, whoa, what are you even, what do you, that, what, that’s, what, that’s crazy, Larry, I’ve never, what are you talking about, I’ve never, no, no.”) Phil can’t hide his true fears and hopes from anyone but himself.
This is as much Oscar Nuñez’s episode as it is Eliza Coupe’s. His “I’m going to go home, open a bottle of Scotch, write Rosa a long email, pour the Scotch on the computer, and light that on fire” essentially repeats Nina’s “open a nice bottle of wine” rant from the pilot, but it’s almost worth it for Carlos’ acquiescence to the invitation to “rage our faces off”: “Let’s do this! I’ll light my computer on fire some other night.” I love watching Nuñez be persuaded out of sad-sackery. Between his blossoming excitement as he improvises on Phil’s “hooked and booked” prank, his clumsy excuses not to knock back shots (“Sorry, I got, uh, wing hands. Slippery!”), and his heartfelt nostalgia for evenings on the couch with his ex-wife, Nuñez begins to round out his character as someone both funny and fundamentally believable.
Cedric Yarbrough makes the most of Morris’ dry exasperation and bemusement when Nina shows up looking to get processed in “a tight 15.” His “I’d love to arrest you for no reason!” packs more punch for being delivered at the elevator as he dons his hat and jacket. Nina’s clearly interrupted him on his way home. Just as clearly, she doesn’t notice or care. Collisions of the cast’s distinctive voices and personalities are Benched’s brightest facet, and Morris’ businesslike, bored, and tartly sardonic demeanor nicely foils Nina’s excitable energy.
The show still presents its world too much through Nina’s privileged eyes. At the end of the episode, despite connecting with her client and ostensibly realizing how little she deserves to lord it over others, it’s Nina whose unassailably correct viewpoint prevails. And after Nina’s night in a cell, imprisonment is still treated as an unpleasant adventure, not the first chapter of a potentially life-altering ordeal. “Hooked And Booked” focuses on the transient ickiness of the experience for Nina without touching on what it means for her clients.
In the pilot, the case of the diaper-stealing mom spotlights the institutional machinery that railroads defendants, accumulating offenses to their records through little fault of their own. But this episode largely ignores both that systemic injustice and the very tangible ways Nina contributes to its effect on Baby Jones in favor of a few gags about, well, Nina gagging. Her delicate princess routine would be a lot funnier if it weren’t grounded in her blithe disregard for the client she’s representing. There’s a difference between illustrating your lead’s limited perspective and succumbing to it, and in “Hooked And Booked,” Benched is on the wrong side of that divide.
- “Larry, drinks?” “In my gym bag, help yourself.”
- Benched delights in poking fun at unconventional names of incidental characters. Last week it was Nina’s “Oooooh, that’s your real name?” to Whispers, a client arrested for solicitation. This week, it’s Carlos’ bar pick-up, who corrects him when he addresses her as “Sparrow”; her name, spoken four times in five seconds, is “Feather.” Uncontextualized name gags like that are not even jokes. They’re cheap and lazy.
- The voice Oscar Nuñez puts on for Carlos’ hesitant, on-the-fly impression of his fictional cellmate, Kendrick Sycamore, reminds me of the intentionally fumbling, weirdly-pitched voices essayed by Brendon Small and H. Jon Benjamin on Home Movies.
- “Who cares? We’re having fun, Larry’s doing… that…”
- “Here’s something you don’t see every day: a rat throwing up from the smell. So, just to recap, a rat that lives in squalor is throwing up from the smell.” This joke bothered me to an irrational degree because—true fact—rats can’t vomit.
- “That’s not jailable. That’s stupid, with a splish-splash of racism.”