The premise of Benched, USA’s new workplace comedy created by Michaela Watkins and Damon Jones, could have felt a little pat. Prominent corporate attorney Nina Whitley (Eliza Coupe) cracks when she’s passed over for partnership within minutes of her ex’s engagement announcement. Face tear-streaked with mascara, Nina resigns her prestigious position in an opening-scene outburst that tips its hat to Enlightened, and she ends up as an underpaid, overbooked public defender. The kicker: Nina faces off against that ex, the new deputy district attorney, on her first day in court.
It all sounds a little canned, a little airless. And the first scene of Benched presents the moneyed corporate office as an intentionally flat, airless world: carefully placed porcelain objets, rows of champagne flutes, the empty praise of a smarmy boss, even the elevator that requires a card after 5 p.m. insulating the upper offices from the world outside. Everything here is staid and structured, ready for Nina’s inevitable breakdown to overturn it.
That’s a simple subtext, but strong. In her old office, Nina became a force of chaos; in the public defender’s office, she’s immersed in chaos. Given this set-up, Benched could embrace its messiness, eschewing standard sitcom-lockstep. But the first episode’s crowded, rote structure is typical of a pilot, packing a series’ worth of characters, situations, and relationships into 22 minutes with quick, broad strokes.
And the pilot’s strokes are broad: Nina as the fish-out-of-water; the scruffily good-looking rogue and presumptive love interest (Better Off Ted’s Jay Harrington); the crusty new boss (Jack McGee); the downright dippy co-worker (Maria Bamford). Jolene Purdy’s Micah, the PD’s second-year intern, is treated more as a Greek chorus than a character, and Oscar Nuñez’s Carlos, barely assigned a character trait in the pilot, is reduced to just smiling gamely. (His role expands in future episodes, better showcasing Nuñez’s talents.)
But Benched has plenty of promise. Nina’s combination of polish and caustic temper makes the most of Coupe’s spiky charms. The stellar cast’s snappy, confident delivery brightens up a sometimes scattershot script. Their chemistry lands iffy jokes and buttresses the physical comedy at which Coupe excels; Nina’s partition-straddling humiliation, seen above, is tempered by Cedric Yarbrough’s (Reno 911!’s Deputy Jones) dry resentment of her condescension. Bamford brings her usually off-kilter brightness, Harrington’s stubbly, disenchanted Phil is predictable but winning, and Fred Melamed as Judge Nelson is both the swift dispenser of dubious justice and a beaming gnome of capricious temper. Talk about chaos: He embodies it.
The characters’ brash absurdity is grounded by the tangible, textured, fully realized world in which they operate. From the grubby disorder of the public defender’s office to her colleagues’ knowing description of Nina’s “money law” background, it all contributes to a rich, real world that few pilots paint so clearly.
And then there’s the quiet perfection of Nina’s first-day suit. Bamford’s Cheryl draws attention to it with an admiring “That ain’t from Penney’s.” Crisp black with set-in panels of beige, the ensemble is polished, professional, and a little too chic for her new position. But when Nina wears it into court, covering the stylish dress with matching jacket, only the beige waist panel shows against all that black. Mimicking Nina’s skin tone, it suggests an underbelly exposed in this challenging new environment.
As Alexa Planje observes in her Season 1 overview, Benched marries a strong sitcom engine to a specifically female voice and energy. This simple costuming choice illustrates the show’s tacit, confident understanding of Nina’s strengths, foibles, and fears. Even more, it hints at how the brittle perfectionism she wears like armor actually reveals Nina’s vulnerability.
- Micah: “Trent’s the new deputy DA. Got here six months ago, charms all the judges’ panties off.” Nina, sotto voce: “Yeeeah, that’s in his skill set.”
- “My explanation is, apparently, when you leave a client to go pee, you have to tell a guard or they won’t guard, which you’d think they would do automatically since they are guards…” Nobody rambles like The Bammer rambles.
- Soda or cocktail at the ready, Bamford also does excellent straw work. (I desperately wish there were a better way to phrase that, but there isn’t.)
- “If you ever approach my bench without permission again, I will ship you to Pelican Bay in a Hefty bag! Love you! Mean it! Best friends!”
- “I’m going to go home, open a nice bottle of wine, smash it on the counter, and shank myself with it.”
- Ynez Gutierrez (Minerva Garcia), a diaper-stealing single mother asked whether she can make bail, speaks the frank reality of Nina’s defendants: “If I had seventy dollars, I’d buy diapers.”