Last week’s Benched revolved around Nina’s competitive nature, and most shows would shy away from focusing on her need to win in the very next episode. But most shows don’t have a Nina Whitley, and most shows don’t have an Eliza Coupe. Benched can afford to tap that vein of material twice in swift succession because Nina’s ferocious competition has more than one facet, and so does Coupe’s ability to portray it.
While “Shark, Actually” shows Nina at her most ruthless, trying to outfox (or, ahem, outshark) her co-counsel, and shafting her client in the process, “Rights And Wrongs” sees her fighting for her clients with a righteous passion… even if that righteousness is rooted more in resentment of the district attorney than in a thirst to see justice served.
Nina’s resentment of her former fiancé and current opposing counsel fuels her unflagging refusal to accept plea deals, but it’s not her only reason. Nina resists giving Trent an easy win, but she’s also resisting a system that’s skewed against defendants. In “Rights And Wrongs,” Nina’s fervor for winning—and rejection of deals—opens up a discussion of a judicial system designed to encourage guilty pleas and deals rather than jury trials and the possibility of freedom. (This isn’t a dramatic fiction, but a very real issue in the court system.)
John Enbom is credited with writing this episode, and its structure is as tight as any episode of Benched so far. It’s nothing flashy, just the kind of quiet competence that lets a plot glide from one moment to the next without a hitch. It looks easy. It looks natural. And it’s a lot of work, laying in subtle story beats and pieces of background to pay off later, sometimes so simply that the viewer doesn’t consciously notice them.
“Rights And Wrongs” parallels Nina’s competitive spirit with Carlos’ idealism, giving Oscar Nuñez yet another chance to display his emotional and comedic adeptness. Carlos is that seemingly impossible thing: a resigned optimist. When he loses his place on the docket, the client walks off with his shirt, and the woman he still calls “my wife” serves him with divorce papers, Carlos can shrug and say with half a smile, “This is just the way it is.”
When Carlos heads to the roof, Nina’s panic is justified, set up by Burt’s story of a fellow public defender (and fellow idealist) who leapt from the roof after one too many losses taken too hard… and Carlos’ actual excuse of grabbing a cigarette in the open air is also set up by the first-scene combination of the out-of-repair fire escape and Carlos’ own determination to quit because “I promised my wife.”
Revved up to investigate her client’s claim of innocence, Nina taunts Phil for “phoning it in.” Phil repeats her taunt, her words, and her gesture to great effect later, pointing out that sometimes actually phoning it in saves a lot of legwork, frustration, and time, all precious commodities in their office.
Hope is another precious commodity, and—wryly, gently—Carlos teaches Nina the lesson of conserving it. He gives every case his all, but no single case means everything, because the moment one closes, another takes its place. He’s had to find a balance that allows him to do his very best without investing his heart and soul in each case, and so must Nina. As Burt tells her, “If you were less of a lawyer, you could be a great lawyer.”
It’s one of Benched’s strengths that there are no terrible lawyers, no villains, no outright antagonists. The broken system is antagonist enough. Even Trent, the DA they face in court every day, is presented as a part of the machinery of the adversarial justice system, not as an adversary himself. It’s impressive to see his character expanded and explored with such sympathy, and Carter MacIntyre plays the part with a well-judged combination of patience and mild annoyance that drives home his (very persuasive) outburst that maybe Nina is just “too much.”
For all its structural strength, “Rights And Wrongs” has its weak points. The cold open in the elevator is entertaining enough, but it adds nothing, never connects to the main story, and could have been dropped into any episode. It’s plausible that a DA’s office would be home to random, unsettling encounters, but the show has never established them, so this exchange feels disconnected and distracting.
The chemistry between Nina and Phil is at its weakest in “Rights And Wrongs.” There’s no harm in letting their flirtation lapse, as it largely did last week, but the schoolyard teasing and backhanded banter just keeps it volleying back and forth with little fire or fun. That makes it harder for genuinely affecting moments, like Phil’s offhand gift of the security footage, to land.
Micah is still treated as an expositional device rather than a character, following Nina around to drop facts like “It’s not just Trent, all DAs overcharge so they can get pleas to lesser charges.” But it’s time to consider the depressing possibility that this is an intern’s reality: She exists for the DAs as a functionary, not a person. (Maybe the lawyers and law-school students among you would like to chime in on that in the comments.)
If so, that’s too bad, because—as it showed tonight with Carlos’ resilience, Trent’s patience, and Phil’s savvy, quietly selfless maneuvering—Benched’s most winning quality is the humanity of its characters.
- I’m excited to see Maria Bamford back this week, but then I’m always excited to see Maria Bamford. Cheryl doesn’t do much, but here’s hoping Benched expands her character and Micah’s as it has Carlos’ and Trent’s.
- Boring Larry is absent this week, giving credence to the theory (floated in the comments a few weeks ago) that Cheryl and Boring Larry are two entities sharing a body.
- Fred Melamed returns as Judge Nelson, and I hope the show never, ever makes the obvious joke about that name.
- “I have an announcement: budget cuts.” “Wait, that qualifies as a announcement?”
- I loved everything about Nina’s return from searching for the security videotape: her dishevelment, her distant, nodding stare, her parting question of “Rabies? Is that a thing, or is that just for kids?”
- Carlos, the resigned optimist, can deliver the pep talk “There’s so much to live for, etc., etc.,” and know it’s enough.