Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Pilot Review: Ben and Kate

Ben and Kate (Tuesdays at 8:30 on Fox; Premieres September 25)

I watched this pilot a week ago and have been trying ever since to find something more thoughtful to say about it than what I initially felt. But the only words still swimming around in my head are "cute," "charming," and "endearing." Ben and Kate is all of these things, I just can't bring myself to feel anything deeper than that.

Kate Fox (Dakota Johnson, 21 Jump Street, daughter of Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith) is a single mom who gave birth to her daughter Maddie (Maggie Jones, We Bought a Zoo) just before graduating college. Her brother Ben (Nat Faxon, Oscar winning screenwriter of The Descendants) is a permanent drifter, floating in and out of his sister's and niece's lives between relationships and jobs. As Kate explains in the opening narration, "My brother Ben and I kind of raised ourselves. He never grew up. I grew up too fast." Now Ben is back in town to stop the wedding of his ex-girlfriend and reconnect with his family.

Like the other comedy pilots, there's nothing new happening here. Ben has Peter Pan Syndrome, Kate is the perpetually single mom, Maddie is the precocious kid. We see elements of family dysfunction, obsessed lovers, etc. In that sense, it's not so refreshing. But the script, from creator Dana Fox (What Happens in Vegas), is very earnest in its portrayal of the sibling relationships between Kate and Ben. Perhaps that's because it's based on Fox's actual real-life relationship with her brother, but still. The main characters are well-rounded and feel real, never overstepping the boundaries into the territory of caricature. The same can't be said of the other comedy pilots this season, so I'll give Ben and Kate its due in that respect. The interactions between Ben and Kate and between Ben and Maddie are sweet and cute, sometimes even funny. At the moment Ben discovers his ex is getting married, he must hold his tongue in front of his young niece, exclaiming, "There's so much I want to say! Why are you so young right now?!" The moment goes on a bit too long and has been seen before, but it really does show Ben's progress toward maturity in just a few short moments.

The funniest part of the pilot, however, is a supporting turn from Lucy Punch (Bad Teacher) as Kate's co-worker BJ. She is utterly ridiculous and gives the worst advice, but Punch plays her earnestly and so it comes across as funny rather than schlocky. The remainder of the performances are fairly standard. Faxon is an acquired taste as Ben. His open-mouthed, wide-eyed, manic portrayal of Ben is overwhelming at times, but when he brings out the softer side of his character it becomes easier to swallow. He is equal parts Jim Carrey and Mike Meyers, so it can be a bit much at times. But just like those two, Faxon has quiet moments between the outbursts that really make you feel for him and understand him.

When it's all said and done, there are worse ways you could spend a half-hour than with Ben and Kate. Like I said earlier, it's funny in a cute/charming/endearing way. It manages to be family-appropriate without inducing eyerolls, and it has a lot of heart. In a season of pretty weak comedies, that's high praise indeed.

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