I’m a little bit wary of writing this post. Last time I wrote a piece like this, it was about Up All Night, a show that I gave up on after its first season. Around the middle of that season, it seemed to have figured itself out, but in the second half, it introduced new characters, Yvonne (Eve Best) and Luke (Steven Pasquale), who simply didn’t fit into the show’s world, and Up All Night dove towards mediocrity.
I’d like to think this time is somewhat different, though. For one, Ben and Kate is a much funnier show than Up All Night ever was. Secondly, Ben and Kate is almost certainly going to be cancelled due to low ratings, so there won’t be a second season to demonstrate the monumental stupidity of what happens when a show gets retooled. (Yes, Up All Night is actually going multi-cam. That’s not a joke.) So I feel pretty safe putting my stamp of approval on Ben and Kate, for whatever that’s worth.
So why am I enjoying Ben and Kate? Let’s take a look, shall we?
- Humour. While Up All Night was content to go for chuckles, Ben and Kate swings for belly laughs. The result is less “Oh, that’s amusing” than “Ha, that’s hilarious!” Nat Faxon (playing the titular Ben) can wring laughs out of almost any line just with his delivery.
- A consistent tone. One of the problems with the early episodes of Up All Night was that the Ava stuff and the home stuff felt like they were two different shows – a problem that Up All Night eventually overcame. Pretty much from the get-go, Ben and Kate was sure of the kind of show it wanted to be. The tone the show opted for was goofy and warmhearted, which works nicely for a lightweight sitcom.
- Colourful characters. As I mentioned before, Nat Faxon is great as Ben. He brings the right combination of sad-sack and idealistic to the role. Echo Kellum plays Tommy with a weird intensity, and Lucy Punch elegantly toes the line between endearing and irritating narcissism with her performance as BJ. I’m still not totally sold on Dakota Johnson’s performance as the titular Kate, but the writers have managed to make an uptight character funny without making her shrill or unlikable, which is quite an accomplishment. (*cough* Claire on Modern Family *cough*)
- A well-executed child character. Child characters can be hard to get right, and when they’re irritating, they’re really fucking irritating. (Exhibit A: Henry on Once Upon a Time. Who didn’t want him to die?) However, the well-worn trope of the wise-beyond-her-years grade-schooler is skillfully deployed on Ben and Kate. Maddy is used sparingly, so she never has a chance to become grating. Credit also goes to the actress who plays her, Maggie Elizabeth Jones, for bringing a kind of nonchalance to the role that is both hilarious and adorable.
- Sincerity. This is a tough one, because it’s hard to know how sincere a writer or director’s intentions are. For all I know, Dan Harmon tried to be sincere with the second season of Community, but the emotional dénouement of a given episode often felt unearned and cynical. Or take this fall’s Go On, for example. While that show at least handles its characters’ emotions honestly, I get the sense that the writers do so within the bounds of whatever “emotional quota” is mandated by the network. So while each individual episode stands as a sincere piece of entertainment, the show taken as a whole feels like a cynical, calculated business decision dreamed up by television executives to tug at America’s heartstrings. Ben and Kate doesn’t suffer from this problem. Some episodes are goofier; others are more emotional. There’s no set Ben and Kate formula, and that makes the show feel organic. The show isn’t afraid to treat its characters as real people, not just mouthpieces for funny dialogue.
- An odd rhythm. There’s nothing wrong with the setup-punchline model of joke-writing. 30 Rock, which can often be one of the funniest shows on television (but can sometimes be one of the most excruciating) has gotten a lot of mileage out of it over its seven seasons. Ben and Kate doesn’t stick to that model, though. Many of its jokes come from run-on bits of dialogue, or normal lines said with a funny delivery. This gives the show a unique rhythm that’s like nothing else on television at the moment.
I know that Ben and Kate isn’t long for this world, and barring some sort of miracle, it won’t be returning for the 2013-2014 season. But while it lasts, I’m going to enjoy this gem and its warm, goofy heart.
Unless they bring Eve Best and Steven Pasquale on the show. Then I’m running away. Fast.