FOX debuted their new family sitcom 'Ben and Kate' tonight and, though it was clunky with several kinks to work out, there is enough heart and talent assembled to make for a successful series.
Disclaimer: I love Nate Faxon. His timing and delivery of comedic lines is always great, his brief cameo in 'Orange County' had one of the best laughs in the film, he has AN ACADEMY AWARD for Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay) and this may be the best commercial of all time:
As talented and funny as Faxon is, it doesn't make up for how awkward I felt watching a show where we're made to laugh at a real person who is portrayed as being as stupid as Homer Simpson. Faxon's Ben Fox is a manchild who has shirked responsibility and refused to grow up his entire life. Despite being several years younger, his sister Kate has all of the maturity of the pair and is raising a five-year-old daughter. As the series begins, Ben swoops back into Kate's life and, within minutes, she is agreeing (with very little prompting) to help him ruin a woman's wedding, for only selfish reasons.
As odd as that scenario is to watch, there are laughs in 'Ben and Kate's premiere. Ben's strange fixation on the quality of a person's high-five is a running gag that paints him as the high school prankster. His idiocy is at least balanced by a genuine love for his sister and his niece, which makes his immaturity tolerable from an audience perspective.
Ben's friend Tommy (played by Echo Kellum) is the agreeable and admiring best buddy who serves his purpose nicely. Kellum shows wit through restraint and manages to make the most out of his secondary character status, sneaking laughs into his few lines and never trying to steal moments that aren't (and shouldn't) be about Tommy.
Rounding out the secondary cast is Lucy Punch as Kate's flighty co-worker BJ. Punch is delightful and affable in her scenes, adding the heart that I mentioned off the top. I first fell for Punch during 'You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger' wherein she lambastes the idiotic trophy wife with surgical precision, but more readers may recognize her from 'Bad Teacher.' Here as BJ, Punch is communicating a sort of lovable warmth that a good-natured comedy like 'Ben and Kate' requires. The first episode smartly gives Punch a couple of scenes to riff without cutting away, giving the audience time to get to know this new girl and get to like her.
Unfortunately, this brings us to Kate, the weak link in this four-actor chain. Kate, played by relative newcomer Dakota Johnson, doesn't have any of the warmth of Punch's BJ and none of the comedic timing of Faxon's Ben. The series and the script are clearly banking on Johnson's ability to draw in viewers eager to smile at Kate's latest tribulations, but there is no connection to the character as of yet; the pilot episode gives us no reason to care for her. There are wonderful scenes of bonding between five-year-old Maddie and Ben, between Maddie and BJ... but none of Maddie with her mother. When Ben explains to Kate that the love of his life is marrying another man, Kate's first response is how this could ruin a date the has planned; this sort of detached selfishness is cultivating the opposite of the underdog charm that Kate will need for this series to work.
You'll notice I didn't really mention Maddie much in this review. Well, the show doesn't really either. My friend and I both asked "where is the daughter right now?" at more than one point during the episode--add that to the list of things that will have to improve.
Overall, 'Ben and Kate' was worth watching. There are good things in this recipe, it just hasn't completely risen yet. With the laughs coming from the bench-players, the scripts are going to need to punch up Kate's work to make up for Johnson's flat presence, but the coming episodes could very well surprise me.