BEN & KATE: Tuesday 8:30PM on FOX – Worth A Look
However it may fare in the ratings, this fall’s FOX Tuesday schedule is a model lesson in what a smoothly engineered line-up looks like. At 9:30PM, The Mindy Project is a perfect match with its lead-in New Girl, and at 8:30PM, the new BEN & KATE provides a tailor-made transition from the night’s start with Raising Hope to New Girl, combining the wacky but loving family antics of Hope with the quirky single characters of New Girl.
The title characters are brother and sister: Kate Fox (Dakota Johnson) is single mom to 5-year old Maddie (Maggie Jones); since the father deserted her when he found out she was pregnant, she’s become a bit of a sheltered control freak, although she’s also responsible and loyal. Ben (Nat Faxon, who in another life is one of the Oscar-winning screenwriters of The Descendants, along with Community‘s Jijm Rash) is her older brother, as scattered and dreamy as Kate is practical and grounded. Ben drives Kate crazy, but he also lightens her up; Kate lives in hope that she’ll have some positive influence on Ben’s refusal to live in reality. Our other regulars are BJ (Lucy Punch), Kate’s best friend at the bar where they both work, and Tommy (Echo Kellum), Ben’s childhood sidekick who has a longtime crush on Kate.
There’s not much to Ben & Kate beyond its premise. The show’s creator Dana Fox has said that it’s somewhat autobiographical, and by the end of the pilot, Ben has decided to live with Kate to help take care of Maddie, so the relationships between the characters will be the center of things. (In series, the show will be run by the team of Neil Goldman and Garrett Donovan, who’ve previously been senior writer/producers on Scrubs and Community, the former of which, especially, was a terrific example of balancing emotional storylines with sometimes surreal comedy.) Even the plotlines of the pilot are fairly casual: Ben has come to town with the wild, doomed idea (a combination of Die Hard and The Graduate) of keeping an old girlfriend from getting married, and along the way, he stops Kate before she can start a serious relationship with a caddish boyfriend.
As a series, Ben & Kate will rely strongly on the charm of its characters rather than any high concept, and those kinds of shows can be marvelous (New Girl) or awful (Whitney). On first glance, Johnson and Faxon are likable enough, but so far there isn’t much to their characters beyond fairly familiar outlines. If the show becomes nothing more than Ben hatching some crazy plot every week that Kate prevents from blowing up in his face, while Ben causes Kate to do something to break her out of her shell, it runs the risk of quickly becoming repetitious. On the other hand, the pilot hits a nice level of tone, never letting the physical humor go over the top (the direction is by Jake Kasdan, who handled the pilot for New Girl similarly), and that balance should give the series some time to find itself.
Ben & Kate isn’t going to break any new TV comedy ground, and it suffers a bit from the lack of any obvious break-out characters (Lucy Punch, who only gets one really funny bit in the pilot, could become the show’s secret weapon). It makes an extremely comfortable fit, though, in a Tuesday schedule that makes all kinds of sense. With no other half-hours in the 8-9PM hour, the show may not get a giant lead-in from Raising Hope, but there’s no reason for viewers to change the channel at 8:30–and the easy transition to New Girl could bring some of that hit’s audience in early. On network TV, “pleasant” isn’t an insult, and Ben & Kate has the goods to be a very pleasant half-hour.