When 'Ben and Kate' first debuted on FOX nine episodes ago, I posted a middling review explaining how half of the show was working and half needed a definite tune-up. Several weeks later, the series seems to be holding firm: aspects of the series such as Nat Faxon & Lucy Punch's performances remain strong and worthwhile, while the writing and the eponymous Kate (Dakota Johnson) continue to need work.
The ninth episode of the series is called "Guitar Face," named for Kate's boyfriend Will (Geoff Stults) and his tendency to make an embarrassing sex-face as he plays the guitar in his ZZ-Top cover band. The writers of 'Ben and Kate' are dipping into the 'Seinfeld' ink, dreaming up funny quirks for Kate to obsess over in order to find an excuse to get out of any relationship; we are treated to a brief montage of previous men with their fatal flaw on display. The premise is sufficient to carry Kate's half of the episode--the problem is that Dakota Johnson isn't. Johnson's timing is off-beat and her reactions are understated; this is not a problem in her scenes opposite Faxon (where Ben can play the funnyman and Kate can play straight) but the writers keep giving Kate the funnyman role opposite the men she dates and Johnson is woefully inadequate. Her performance almost gives the sense that she is barely paying attention--the exact opposite of what you want to see from a (traditionally high-energy) funnyman half of any comedic skit. to his credit, Stults managed to deliver a pretty epic guitar face, however that is basically all that is demanded of him in the episode.
Meanwhile, Ben gets a job the golf course where Tommy works (Echo Kellum) as the new Snack Kart Girl. Faxon plays his scenes strongly and with energy, providing most of the laughs in "Guitar Face." While Kellum is clearly skilled as a comedian and plays his scenes as Tommy with aplomb, I can't help but wish for the writers to develop Tommy as more than merely Ben's friend. This episode included a rift between the two buddies, offering perhaps an opportunity for Tommy to show another side of his character... but then the rift is solved via deus ex machina at the close and we return to the status quo. This is a missed opportunity, as Kellum clearly has the chops to carry more weight on the program.
When I reviewed the pilot of 'Ben and Kate' I noted that Johnson was lacking the "warmth" of Lucy Punch's character, BJ. Taking nothing away from Punch, it would seem that the writers decided to forego BJ's warmth and paint the character as more of a traditional bitchy and self-centered supporting character. Whereas in "Pilot" BJ seems loving, concerned for her friends, and even has a touching scene with Kate's daughter, by "Guitar Face" she has devolved into a self-involved shrew who has no problem insulting strangers. I adore Punch's performance and do not blame her for this development but it is disappointing to see the series take this turn with the BJ character--although, with the success of self-involved bitter characters like Robin on 'How I Met Your Mother,' it is possible that the producers were pressured to develop BJ in that direction.
The structure of "Guitar Face" is that Ben has a new job and Kate has a new man, Ben loses job and Kate loses man, then Ben regains job and Kate regains man, so nothing has altered by the end. Going over my old review from eight episodes ago, it would seem that "nothing has altered" seems to be the theme of 'Ben and Kate's initial season. The show remains hit-and-miss; some spiky bits of dialogue will make you chuckle, other scenes will leave you cold. Kellum remains underutilized and Johnson remains overexposed, with Faxon and Punch at the mercy of the zingers provided for them.
Oh... and you may notice that I didn't mention Kate's daughter, Maddie. The show barely gives you any reason to do so. Maddie appears in two scenes as "generic child" and is forgotten for the remainder. This is a shame, as Maggie Elizabeth Jones seems to understand acting far better than most stars her age.
'Ben and Kate' may very well have reached the extent of its premise. Given that ratings are sufficient, we can expect may more episodes of the sitcom to come: just don't expect any of them to alter what we've seen in these nine episodes.
FINAL GRADE: C-