Between The Good Wife, Cristela, and How To Get Away With Murder, female-led legal series are having a moment right now. USA’s recent attempts at going off-brand deserve one as well, whether executives find the patience to nurture these surprisingly strong forays into scripted comedy or not. Benched, created by Michaela Watkins and Damon Jones (and executive produced by Party Down’s John Enbom), is an impressive addition to both categories, offering a smart, fresh combination of several different genres that any network would be proud to call its own. Benched blends some of the most attractive, practical characteristics of lawyer shows, fish-out-of-water narratives, and workplace comedies, breathing new life into all three modes of storytelling.
The show is also about something, refreshingly: Happy Ending’s Eliza Coupe plays Nina, a self-absorbed but able woman demoted from corporate lawyer to public defender thanks to a mental breakdown and her own foolishness. It’s a free fall that forces her to downsize her life and face flaws in both herself and the justice system. Benched is a spiritual successor of respected shows like Enlightened and Orange Is The New Black, sharing their interests in second chances, self-discovery, politics, and what it means to do good. This may be a comedy, but it’s a comedy with stakes, a narrative engine, and real drama.
Based on its pedigree, it’s no surprise that Benched functions as a strong comedy, drawing an impressive number of laughs right out of the gate. Benched makes an impression because it amuses in a variety of ways: The series packs awkward, physical, edgy, and background gags into every nook and cranny. The specific, unapologetic female-oriented body humor (for lack of a better term) is especially notable, indicating that strong female voices are involved in the writing. Romantic-comedy-related premises are also having a moment in television right now, but Benched puts those shows’ attempts at witty banter to shame. Instead of forcing the pairing of Eliza Coupe and Better Off Ted’s Jay Harrington down the audience’s throat, Benched puts faith in its writers and actors to sell the early stages of a credible, entertaining love/hate relationship.
While Coupe has a tendency to lean on some of her reliable comedic tics a little too hard, she generally dominates the role of Nina, providing the show with a strong foundation. Well-cast supporting players deliver as well, establishing a medley of voices that avoid the common comedic pitfalls of being too grating or too cartoonish. Benched’s ragtag group of public defenders recalls The Office’s early days—and not just because Oscar Nuñez is among them. Maria Bamford is a standout, and it’s exciting to see that she’s found another project worthy of her talents. Bamford embodies a variety of characters in her standup, making her an ideal candidate for a regular sitcom role; her signature nervous eccentricity has been harnessed effectively here, where she plays a frazzled, lovelorn public defender.
The first several episodes also establish a world flush with comedic and narrative opportunity. The glimpse of Nina’s old life as a high-powered corporate attorney in the pilot makes her transition to public defender—and the new office, courtroom, apartment, and relationships that come with said transition—that much more jarring, and her efforts to cope that much more entertaining. The show mines humor from Nina’s overenthusiastic attempts to alternatively escape and conquer her new position; these jokes work because this new role in this new world is well-established. It makes sense that she has trouble fitting in at her new job, not just because she’s self-involved Nina, but because the familiarity between her officemates is believable.
From the writing, to the cast, to impactful details like the spot-on styling and sets, Benched exudes confidence and commitment. Its atmosphere—and home network—aren’t particularly glamorous, but Benched excels where it matters. Audiences may not currently look to USA for quality comedy, but if Nina can change, anything is possible.
Reviews by Emily L. Stephens will appear weekly.