Jay Harrington, Eliza Coupe (Isabella Vosmikova/USA Network)
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Five episodes in, Benched is finding its feet. The first few episodes had the hustling, hopeful quality of a new series testing its limits and not always knowing its strengths. But “Shark, Actually” feels assured and easy, driven equally by the characters and their circumstances, and less by rote sitcom expectations. The ensemble has dished out snappy lines with chemistry and confidence all along, and the plotting is starting to catch up. This feels like a show that trusts itself, and that makes me trust it, too.

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This episode manages to balance most of its elements—Nina’s ongoing adjustment to the public defenders’ office, the will-they/won’t-they subplot, and a deeper exploration of her character—without ever forgetting it’s a comedy. Nina scoffs to see her colleagues playing covert word games in court, right under the judge’s nose. What Nina calls “goofing around,” Phil calls “lightening the mood of an otherwise soul-crushing environment,” and they’re both right.

Nina plays games, too. Hers just have higher stakes. She’s eager to spar with a private lawyer with “a face like a moon rock” and a reputation for treachery. She’s insulted when Phil calls her “a shark person,” and she’s insulted when he takes it back. Nina Whitley is a shark who doesn’t want to be just a shark. Ultimately, she outsharks herself.

“Shark, Actually” capitalizes on its quieter scenes, playing on small gestures and nuances. In early episodes, the spark between Nina and Phil is a little perfunctory, a mere performance of a sitcom standard. Here they interact almost exclusively as colleagues, but their brief flirtatious exchange feels both fresh and plausible. Nina’s stammering reaction (“Why would he… you… do that?”) and Phil’s cocksure response (“Because if you lean in after I lean in? I know I gotcha”) are palpably charged.

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Introducing outside romantic interests to invigorate a presumed pairing is an old trick, and so is the lean-in fake-out Phil demonstrates, but sometimes old tricks are best. Phil’s dalliance with the court stenographer is trifling, but Nina and George Grumby, Jr., (Mehcad Brooks) have a thrilling rapport: funny, smart, and intoxicating. Brooks (of Necessary Roughness and True Blood) radiates warmth, giving the electricity between them depth and power. And not everyone can deliver a line like “It’s nothing a little lube won’t fix” with such innocence and ease.

“Shark, Actually” neatly sidesteps an issue the show has grappled with before. Benched has had trouble balancing the gravity of its protagonists’ responsibilities against the levity of its writing, and too often it’s played professional errors for comedy without acknowledging the cost and consequences to the clients. It’s a tricky problem, but one that a comedy set in a public defenders’ office has to manage.

It would be easy to say that “Shark, Actually” ignores the defendants. Nina’s client appears only for a silent minute or two, and Phil’s client is mostly a plot-delivery device, a case he’s resigned to losing but determined to fight for anyhow.

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And that’s the key: Phil and Nina play games to lighten the tension or to outwit their rivals. (As Phil points out, even when you win, “You lose. See why we need the games?”) They’re doing their best, and sometimes their best is realistically inadequate. They aren’t cavalier about their responsibilities or their failures, as they have been in previous episodes.

Benched still has shortcomings. The structure has improved, but it often leaves elements out of balance. Tonight’s opening sets up the episode nicely, but the scene drags. Phil’s client never quite fits into the episode; his story feels muddy and out of rhythm with the larger narrative. And the writers continue to use Micah as a narrator, not a character.

Carlos’ development from smiling, nodding bystander in the pilot to the exuberant mediocrity he embraces in this episode gives me hope for Benched’s underused characters. Admittedly, few actors have the comedic chops of Oscar Nuñez, who can make “I’m going to need a cab!” into a punchline. The naked delight with which he reassures Phil that he’s not a clown, he’s “the best darned jester in the world!” says more about Carlos’ low expectations than any backstory. (“Like, a court jester?” “Yes, because of our jobs! Exactly!”) Carlos doesn’t regret losing a thousand dollars at poker; he’s overjoyed just to be in the game.

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The whole episode revolves around game-playing, big and small, and around winners, losers, and contenders. With its excellent ensemble and smart dialogue, Benched is no loser. It isn’t a hands-down winner yet, either. But “Shark, Actually” makes it look like a contender.

Stray observations:

  • It’s a shame no promotional photos of Coupe and Brooks were made available, because their scenes are the heart of this episode. But maybe a still frame doesn’t convey the spark between them.
  • “Sharks don’t get googly-eyed over other sharks.” “Unless they’re hammerheads! Then they can’t help it. Shark joke!”
  • “Are there any crater-faced old geezers just sitting around waiting for someone?” In a restaurant like that, there’s always at least one crater-faced old geezer sitting around waiting, especially for someone who looks like Nina.
  • The in-court vocabulary words: bucolic, loquacious, vociferous, osmosis, elver, magisterial. Phil’s bonus word: supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. Carlos’ hypothetical words: turgid, ameliorate, bedash. I love that Carlos invested in four different word-a-day calendars to prepare.
  • “He’s semi-retired now, wears Crocs. You know the story.”
  • Nina’s expense-account dinner: the ’89 Laurette (the first glass of which she knocks back in one long quaff), the scallops, the beet salad, the squab thing, and the New York strip. “Never have the surf without the turf, doctor told me that.”
  • I could quote twenty more lines from this episode and not do it justice, so you might as well start spouting them in the comments. I will just add: “Eight-dollar M&Ms? Well, that’s the real crime.”

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