“Sell It” isn’t about Nina, except in the sense that it’s entirely about Nina.

After three episodes presenting Nina Whitley as a shark of a lawyer, it’s a little jolting to see her blow a trial so spectacularly—and so obtusely. Her failure is explained in some detail: Nina’s used to wrangling with other lawyers. Even as a public defender, she’s presented her previous cases exclusively to judges. But she’s never spoken before a jury, and she has no training or instinct for it.

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Part of the problem with this explanation is the gap between what we see and what we’re told. The dialogue tells us that Nina is a fierce, combative lawyer who wraps her arguments in an unassailable thicket of legal precedents. What we see in her summation is a pompous goofball going off on a tangent about Latin word origins. (For the record, I absolutely believe Nina would go off on that tangent in conversation, but I don’t believe the laser-focused lawyer she’s supposed to be would distract and annoy herself, a client, or opposing counsel with that padded-out digression.)

And then there’s the distance between the just-about-plausible intellectual explanation and the emotional reality of seeing it play out. There’s no discussion of what Nina’s failure means for her client, only of what it means for her. The show relies on our compassion for Nina’s next client, but her initial defendant, now convicted on all four counts (of whatever; we’re never told), gets not a shred of sympathy.

Because this is all about Nina, even when it’s not.

Her boss, Burt, instructs her to cut down on the legalese, make her cases more conversational and easier to follow, and remember that juries aren’t composed of shrewd legal minds. “Half of them think that Two And A Half Men is actually happening.”

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It can’t be easy for Nina, who prides herself on her prestigious history and professional acumen, to recruit her colleagues to critique her, or to accept that she’s so unlikeable that one juror amuses himself drawing elaborate portraits of her as a fanged monster, as a Cruella De Vil knock-off, or—as Cheryl gushes—as “Ooooh, scary kitty!”

Nina understands her duty well enough to realize it’s not about the jury liking her. It’s not even about her brilliance or her extensive grasp of the law. It’s about persuading the jury to find her client not guilty. She has to set aside ego—her desire to be liked, her drive to be the best—and focus on finding the most effective way to serve her client’s needs. It’s about her, but it isn’t about her.

Even the B-plot manages to be about Nina by being not-really about her. Phil is the only office mate not to greet Nina with sarcastic applause after her humiliation in court. He’s too distracted by an upcoming humiliation at the hands of Trent and an unpersuasive pep talk. (“Do I have it in me, is today the day? Probably not, stay tuned.”)

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Phil’s eventual triumph hinges both on Nina’s advice—“You’ve got to beat him at something in order to beat him at something else”—and on Nina as the “something.” It was inevitable (and not in a good way) that Benched would put Phil and Trent in direct competition, but to make that rivalry explicit now feels both a little soon and a little naked. But Jay Harrington’s shaky uncertainty is much more appealing and funny than Phil’s usual smug roguishness, and seeing Trent rattled gives his previously unexplored character a hint of dimension. Not a lot, but a hint is better than the cardboard cutout he’s been so far.

Harrington and MacIntyre don’t have the chemistry of Coupe and Harrington (or Coupe and Bamford, or Coupe and almost anyone), but they play off each other ably, sidling over the line from cooperative to competitive and back again easily. Trent and Phil’s competing bursts of advice on addressing a jury produce a round of the quick, conversational volleys Benched does so well. “It’s like you’re the cool boss at an office party telling a joke.” “Yeah, an office party full of wood-shop students.” “Nah, nah, not wood-shop students. Like, Terry from Accounting or Stan from HR.” “Gary, the guy that can’t get the dip on the chip.”

The episode is all about Nina (even if it isn’t about her), but Benched is all about the ensemble with Coupe at the center, and “Sell It” makes that idea literal, gathering Cheryl, Carlos, Micah, Boring Larry, and Burt in a coaching session, directing a barrage of discouraging criticism to Nina. Coupe’s nervy, tightly contained energy heightens both the stress and the modest comedy of the scene, but it’s Boring Larry who delivers the crowning moment. His fear of Nina’s “clomping heels, the sound of girls rejecting me in high school” could be the scene’s punchline, and in most shows, it would be. When Nina chides Larry (whom we do not call “Boring Larry” to his face) “I cannot control what happened to you in high school,” his fast and certain “Yes, you can!” suggests that Benched has learned to rely less on conventional punchlines, never its greatest strength, and more on weird little character moments.

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Overall, “Sell It” is an encouraging, though not outstanding, episode of a promising series. This episode undermines Nina’s compelling competence, but it also brings together the ensemble as it never has before, and neatly links the A- and B-stories, creating a tight, coherent structure with more complexity than any previous episode of the series.

Stray observations:

  • “Are we doing Downton Abbey?”
  • “You ever been assaulted?” “Yes, I was rudely addressed by Philip Roth once.”
  • “Did you think it was too much reading all of Miranda v. Arizona?” “No, I’m sure the bus-driving professional birthday clown got it.”
  • Firefly fans, that’s Michael Fairman (a.k.a. Adelai Niska) as Judge Miron Ickles.
  • I’ve always said Eliza Coupe looks like a pretty Muppet—a humanoid Muppet, not a fuzzy monster Muppet—and her stiff-armed tiptoe walk increased that similarity to an uncanny degree.
  • “I still think they don’t like her.” “It’s not about her, it’s about him.” “Ooooooh. Him who?”

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