Because NBC’s “Guys With Kids” set the bar so low, FOX’s “Ben and Kate” can breathe easy. It won’t be dubbed the worst show of the season. That said, it sure goes out of its way to win the trophy.
Years ago, on the first day of a UCLA Extension class about selling TV shows to networks, a network buyer told us: “you can have the best idea in the history of television for a new show, and we’ll still buy a sub-par project from someone we already like to work with.” That can explain how dreck like Guys with Kids (produced by Jimmy Fallon) and Ben and Kate (produced by Dana Fox; whose sole contribution to TV high society prior to this was 14 episodes of “New Girl”) gets on the air.
It’s a shame. I was really looking forward to this. I have seen the winning lead, Nat Faxon, in 50+ Groundlings performances and was sad to see him only get commercial work (not a bad dime by the way) while his castmates Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Jim Rash (Community) and even Stephanie Courtney (the Progressive Insurance girl) went onto major success. But now Faxon has an Oscar (for co-writing The Descendants with Rash), so now is his time to shine.
Winning actor. Losing project.
Since sitcoms do so well in syndication, it is critical to capture an audience in the first act. Do this well and you can make hundreds of millions of dollars down the road; fail and your few fans will be lucky to see a stream of the unaired episodes before the plug is pulled altogether.
Ben and Kate’s premise is a tepid warm over of one of TV’s most tired formulas: The Odd Couple (or Homer Simpson’s favorite, “Ethnic Mismatch Comedy #644”). In this case, we get Ben (the loose cannon) and Kate (his single mom sister). Can these two live together without driving each other crazy? To make this formula work, you have to care about both characters. Felix and Oscar were both recently divorced, one a nit-pick, one a slob, and yet, by the time the opening credits roll, your heart breaks for them. Ben, on the other hand, is immediately presented as a sociopath and potential criminal through a series of wacky entrances that were probably much funnier on paper. Or they just filmed dozens of line-o-ramas and hoped Faxon could improv his way to gold. Epic fail. I was immediately put off.
Kate (played by newcomer Dakota Johnson) is so thinly portrayed, she almost dissolves on the screen. The character is barely sketched out — we have no idea who this person is. In the pilot, she is just a foil for Ben. The actress has virtually no comedic timing. It’s a shame, she is winsome and lovely and would likely be better used in a drama ensemble. How did she get the part? She is the daughter of Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith. I’m not against nepotism (Colin Hanks and Jayden Smith have solid acting chops), but in this case, Johnson’s lack of charisma makes all of her scenes fall flat.
The strongest actresses in the series are forced into thankless side-kick roles. Lucy Punch (who slayed as the ill-fated stage actress in Hot Fuzz) plays BJ, the wacky blonde brit sidekick, as sort of a poor man’s Rebel Wilson from Bridesmaids. 7-year old Maggie Elizabeth Jones already has a portfolio to rival her co-stars. She’s radiant and charming as Kate’s kid, but is forced to play the same character we see across the dial these days — the pint-sized straight man to wacky, unhinged parents.
As the pilot unfolds, these unlikable characters trudge through Plot Premise 101. Ben needs to stop the wedding of his true love. Kate has a date with a guy who appears to be good to be true. Kate works as a bartender but lives in a $1.7 million dollar home in a posh LA suburb and drives a brand new Volvo wagon. A butt dial connects incongruent plotlines. They rehearse how to break up the wedding — not in their living room — but in some random wedding chapel they gained entrance to with no explanation or repercussion. Ben gains sudden emotional depth merely by being adjacent to a kid. Everyone jumps in a pool as an act of rebellion. There’s a sassy token black guy who has no plausible connection to anyone.
As Kate tries to sell Ben to the bride, she tries desperately to sell the show to us. She fails on both counts, uttering something forgettable along the lines of “Ben has a big heart and even though he constantly screws up, well, I still love the guy.”
I’m not sure where this can go. Like NBC’s ill-fated Joey, when a brother and sister live together, there’s not much you can do except make creepy sexual entendres. I’m sure one walks in on the other in the shower in the next episode or so. Soon after, someone will mistake them for a couple. Heck, even in this episode, when they escape under a table to talk, I half expected them to make out.
While Ben and Kate has a very quick expiration date, fear not, all of these actors will be better served in other projects down the road. I’d love to see Punch and the dazzling Echo Kellum (the token black sidekick) in meatier roles as wacky roommates. Go ahead Dana Fox, steal that idea, I have no chance of selling it.