The goofy but intelligent sitcom, which began its ascendancy a few years back with the underrated Raising Hope, and continued moving on up with last year’s breakout hit, New Girl, has climbed a little higher up the mountain with new comedy Ben and Kate.
Centred around titular siblings Ben (Nat Faxon) and Kate (Dakota Johnson), who grew up in a rampantly dysfunctional household where raging arguments were the norm, it’s based on the real life of the show’s creator Dana Fox, and you can see the humanity that this brings to the show almost from the word go.
Because while it is yet another in a long line of sitcoms based on mismatched people living together – goofy brother Ben values “fun” over pretty much anything else in life, while more responsible single mum sister Kate, mother to cute-but-too-cute daughter Maddie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones), holds down the serious adult role – they almost immediately cease to be caricatures and become real people.
And that is this sitcom’s real triumph.
It would have been frighteningly easy to shoot for cheap laughs based on stereotypes so broad no joke could have missed them.
And sure I was a little uneasy in the first part of the debut episode where Ben seemed to be channeling equal parts Wedding Singer-era Adam Sandler and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure-era Keanu Reeves.
And also a little jumpy when Kate arrived home with a possible new boyfriend after date number 9 – no. 10 is the first where she is nervously planning to have sex for the first time since Maddie was conceived – and played the straight woman to perfection just as Ben revs up the goofiness.
But then, just as I am expecting every tired old, tarted up cliche to come wandering in the door, glad to be working somewhere other than 2 Broke Girls, Dana Fox deftly injects some genuine humanity in a scene that could have simply been played for pure slapstick.
Turns out that while Ben may be a slacker, living in far off Sacramento and only returning back when he needs something, and Kate may be the uber-responsible job with a steady bar job, they actually get along well.
And to this I say a big hollerin’ pop culture hallelujah!
I am fairly certain my brain would have exploded from frustration and this would have the first and last episode I would have watched if Ben and Kate had gone down the angry, sniping cheap-shots-at-each-other-in-every-line-of-dialogue route.
Too many sitcoms use this approach thinking that mean and snarky is the path to eternal sitcom happiness.
But the truth is, this approach has a limited life span, wears out its welcome with discerning viewers fast, and leave a hollowed-out comedy in its wake.
And frankly it wouldn’t have made sense anyway given Ben and Kate’s backstory. The whole reason they are as close as they are, despite everything Ben may do, is that they only had each other during their difficult growing up years.
While no doubt there are people who do end up snarking at each other after childhoods like that, it would have cut the heart and soul out of what is a delightful, sweet (but not saccharinely so) sitcom with real people living out wholly believable relationships.
There is real warmth and sentiment behind every line in the show, and it is this grounding in the truth of real human interaction that elevates the show.
That’s not to say it doesn’t enjoy the occasional excursion into cliches land but it uses them well and they become an effective part of the show’s overall look and feel rather than the butt of laboured, crudely obvious jokes.
Take the requisite sidekicks to both Ben and Kate.
Tommy (Echo Kellum), Ben’s best friend (who is desperately in love with Kate, and not afraid to remind her every chance he gets), and saucy British lass BJ (Lucy Punch) are both a little loopy, as all good friends must be, and possessed of enough zingy one liners that they have the power to slay a whole herd of gloomy guts in their well-shuffled tracks.
But they complement Ben and Kate perfectly and could well go on, with enough attention from the show’s writers (which I am quietly confident they will get) to acquire the same depth and breadth of character that sidekicks like Jack and Karen did in Will and Grace.
Dana Fox and the team even managed to fashion a happy ending to the debut episode that wasn’t so sugary sweet that viewers were left in a candy-induced coma for days afterwards.
While Ben may not have succeeded in stopping his old girlfriend from marrying another man, he did manage to do what all big brothers should do and look out for the best interests of his sister and niece, in the process revealing, without too much expositional clunkiness, that there is a man of substance behind the goofy facade.
It bodes well for the show, and I am expecting big things from a sitcom that has a good chance of joining Raising Hope and New Girl as goofy sitcoms with heart … and a correspondingly long and happy TV life*.
* Just how long you ask? Well no one can predict the future but it was announced earlier today Australian time that Ben and Kate, along with sibling sitcom, The Mindy Project, had been picked for full seasons after just two episodes have aired. In Ben and Kate’s case that means six extra episodes to go with the initial 13 ordered.
In announcing the order, Fox Entertainment Chairman Kevin Reilly was quoted in a statement as saying: “‘Ben and Kate’ and ‘The Mindy Project’ have everything we want to stand for in comedy: smart writing, hugely appealing casts and comedy that feels contemporary and real — which is why we’re confident they will continue to build on what is already an appointment comedy night for young, influential audiences on Tuesdays.”
So there’s cause for celebration already!
* Oh and here’s an awesome interview with Nat Faxon on tvline.com. You’re welcome.