‘Ben and Kate,’ lotsa clichés, few laughs
He's the madcap brother who never grew up on this Fox sitcom
September 11, 2012
We all know those eternally adolescent guys who survive on a combination of stupidity and self-confidence, blundering into and out of problems that they've caused themselves and trying the patience of their loyal friends and family members. But we don't know these guys from real life. We know them from TV and movie comedies.
So it would take a lot of charisma on the part of the actor and creativity on the part of the writers to make this stock character work again. Unfortunately both of those qualities are in too short supply in Fox's new sitcom "Ben and Kate." The whimsy feels forced and, therefore, not whimsical at all, and the laughs are scarce.
Airing on Tuesday, Sept. 25, at 8:30 p.m., the premiere episode opens with a narrated montage in which Kate (Dakota Johnson) tells us that her older brother, Ben (Nat Faxon), "never grew up." In a series of quick scenes, he pops up and says things like "I need your car. And a piñata and six dresses, size 8 through 12."
Kate then tells us that that she, by contrast, "grew up too fast." We see a boyfriend literally running off when she tells him that she's pregnant.
Kate and her daughter, Maddie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones), who's now 5, are living in a apartment that seems a little too nice for a single mother working as a bartender. Ben pops up again, this time because an ex-girlfriend, whom he calls "Mrs. Ben Fox," told him to call her. Instead, he spies on her and learns that she's getting married.
Ben decides he has to stop the wedding. This is interfering with Kate's plan to "have the sex" with a relatively new boyfriend. Like every sitcom female in the last two decades, she seems to have a fixed minimum number of dates before she sleeps with a man — in her case it's 10 — and she has to tell everyone she knows when the sex is going to happen.
Ben's plan involves rappelling from the roof of the building where the reception will be held, climbing through air ducts, throwing a smoke bomb and kidnapping Mrs. Ben. Kate tries to talk him down.
Ben, meanwhile, dislikes Kate's boyfriend because of his weak high-fiving technique. Trying to scare him away, Ben says, "Stay away from my sister, before you find out what six years of krav maga feels like. Well, like a year and a half, plus four years on and off. I took some time off. I was traveling."
Someone who's more naturally funny than Nat Faxon could pull off that speech and perhaps even make us forget how many times we've met similar types in previous comedies. But Faxon brings nothing new to his line readings.
As Kate, Dakota Johnson doesn't seem sure whether we're supposed to see her as a little stupid as well, or as sort of a doormat, or as just a generic sitcom straight woman.
The British actress Lucy Punch plays Kate's coworker and friend B.J., earning some laughs in a scene in which she advises Kate how to draw her date's attention toward her mouth. This scene would be funnier if the show hadn't already made a joke about what B.J.'s initials mean.
Echo Kellum plays Ben's friend Tommy, whose only discernible character trait seems to be mild stupidity too. For example, he can't read the word "salmon." On the plus side, the actors generally underplay and don't stress the jokes too hard.
The creators may have been trying to achieve an ironic distance from the material by playing with clichés. At one point, Kate actually says to Ben, "I'm not going to get sucked into another one of your harebrained schemes." And then, after a quick cut, she's helping him with his scheme.
But in the sitcom-development process, a lot of good intentions are abandoned. The clichés just sit there.
We can give the creators of "Ben and Kate" the benefit of the doubt. That doesn't mean we have to give them our time.
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