[25 September 2012]
As kids, siblings Ben (Nat Faxon) and Kate (Dakota Johnson) didn’t spend much time with their parents. This is the explanation, in Ben and Kate, for how their lives turned out: Kate got pregnant at a young age and was forced to become at least moderately responsible, while Ben became the sort of responsibility-averse, overgrown man-child goofball that you can find in nearly any standard sitcom of the past decade.
It may be commendable that the show even essays an explanation. The delivery is something else: Ben and Kate establishes the brother and sister’s background with a quick opening montage that cuts from a scene of the two children sitting at the kitchen table while their unseen parents shout at each other in the background to a brief set of present day scenes where Ben, who ostensibly lives in Sacramento, repeatedly barges into Kate’s Los Angeles home asking for help with something ridiculous.
The action proper begins as Ben shows up at Kate’s house just as she’s about to make out with her date, George (Jon Foster). Then Ben walks in announced, and instantly judges George to be unsuitable for Kate. Why doesn’t George win Ben’s approval? Well, he’s befuddled at Ben’s sudden appearance, and also, he has a weak high five. Clearly, he isn’t boyfriend material. Rather than yell, Kate pleads with Ben to leave. This is the first real date she’s had in years, she explains, since most of the time she’s busy taking care of her daughter Maddie (Maggie Jones), now five. Ben agrees, but asks Kate for a minute to “get his stuff,” then noisily and bizarrely comes back into the house with a drum kit. At this point Ryan leaves, which leaves Kate put out by her older brother’s insensitivity.
That’s not an especially auspicious, or even very funny, beginning for the show. The opening montage wants us to laugh at Ben barging in and spouting bizarre non sequiturs, like “Do you have a bear trap?” and “How’s your Portuguese?”, but they mostly elicit sighs instead of chuckles. Even worse, Ben seems like a clueless jerk when he interrupts Kate’s date.
But Ben and Kate shows some promise after its first five minutes. Maddie is adorable, and Ben’s antics are much more endearing when Maddie’s involved. One of the premiere’s better scenes involves Ben staking out his ex-girlfriend Darcy’s (Lauren Miller) house after picking Maddie up for school. Maddie is confused about where they’re going, especially when Ben explains that Darcy sent him an email instructing, “Call me.” “Wait, why didn’t you just call her?”, Maddie asks, but she drops her objections when Ben hands her a pair of kiddie binoculars to join in on the spying.
When Ben realizes that Darcy is trying on a wedding dress, his frustration at her impending nuptials and at not being able to swear with Maddie in the car spills over. “Motherf… sh… shyern… shoot! There’s so much I wanna say! Why are you so young right now!?”, he complains loudly. This scene works because it’s funny, but also because softens and humanizes Ben. We see him explain the situation clearly to Maddie without ever condescending to her, and he makes a real effort to moderate his language around her. His behavior is still creepy and passive-aggressive, but he no longer seems like a complete jackass.
The rest of the premiere focuses on Ben’s quest to win back Darcy with a dramatic speech during the wedding, as well as Kate’s preparation and nervousness about her next date with George. Kate and Tommy (Echo Kellum), Ben’s up-for-anything friend, work together to prepare Ben for crashing the wedding. Kate isn’t especially enthusiastic about the plan, but she wants to make sure that her brother doesn’t get his heart broken.
The episode comes together in a flurry of activity. Ben has to deal with his frustration over the inadequacy of Maddie’s babysitter and complications involving Kate’s date, and still make it to the wedding on time for his big confession of love. We often see this sort of farcical climax where the various plotlines crash into each other, and it doesn’t always work. But Ben and Kate pulls it off, complete with a resolution to the wedding story that stays away from the clichés.
By the end of the episode we see that Ben is able to put Kate and Maddie’s interests in front of his own, and that makes a big difference in how we perceive the siblings. It’s clear that they really care for each other and it gives the show an underlying sweetness that’s appealing. The two leads balance each other out quite well. Ben may be occasionally clueless and insensitive, but he isn’t a bad person. Kate has a lot of patience with him, which makes her seem like the more mature one initially, but we also see through the dating story that she doesn’t really have her life together, either.
What the first episode doesn’t do well is establish the supporting characters. Tommy seems to have known Ben for a long time and is thrilled to have him back in town. We also find out that he’s been harboring a crush on Kate for years and that this is something of which she’s fully aware. Kate’s friend BJ (Lucy Punch) gets even less backstory. She’s British and kind of slutty and works at the same Bar and Grill as Kate, and that’s about all that we know. We don’t get to spend time with either one of them very much, but in this case, that might not be a bad thing. It means the show is prioritizing its lead actors, which is really more important in the first episode.
It may take a few episodes for Ben and Kate to find itself, but that sort of feeling-out process often happens with comedies. Part of what gives this show potential is its low concept. It doesn’t set up a romance or a high-stress work situation or much of any sort of goal for the characters. Rather, here the first episode’s end establishes the basic premise,, when the unemployed Ben moving in with Kate and Maddie to be Maddie’s nanny. Recent comedies like Cougar Town and Raising Hope have started with more pronounced concepts, but developed into sows focused on characters who are fun to watch hang out and bounce off each other. Ben and Kate has the potential to be a similar sort of low-key, hangout show that’s also very funny.