Saturday, March 23, 2013

Looking Back on Ben & Kate

In terms of new quality comedy, the fall 2012 season didn't exactly set the world on fire.  Most networks bet on one horse when it came to what type of comedy they wanted to produce and they didn't stray outside of that zone.  NBC decided to go considerably broad, debuting shows such as the extremely bland Go On and the extremely goofy Animal Hospital.  Elsewhere on the tube, ABC looked to bolster their family block with the odd, but supposedly not terrible The Neighbors.  Meanwhile, CBS was being CBS, only this time failing with Partners and Made in Jersey.  Only Fox's two freshman comedies, The Mindy Project and Ben & Kate, appeared to be trying anything interesting last year.

The Mindy Project, with its more popular lead and higher critical and marketing buzz, seemed poised to become network tv's next big hit.  Unfortunately, the show was bogged down by constant casting changes, messy storytelling, and lower-than-expected ratings.  On the other hand, there was Ben & Kate, which was equally low-rated but much more confident in its voice.  While I initially despised The Mindy Project in the nascent days of the fall TV season, I found Ben & Kate to be charming and winsome straight from the get-go.  Even the best comedies have slow starts.  Seinfeld, Parks & Recreation, The Office, 30 Rock; they all showed rough edges in their beginning stages before smoothing things out to reach the classic status, that version of the show that we all remember.  That's what made Ben & Kate so impressive -- it was one of the strongest starts for a comedy in recent memory, up there with the likes of Arrested Development and Modern Family (which sadly stopped being good a long time ago).  If you weren't a fan of the show's voice, then it was unlikely to ever hook you, but I just loved rolling with the rhythms that creator Dana Fox and her writing staff created.

Some might read the premise of Ben & Kate or watch a scene or two and think, "Who needs another hangout comedy?  How is this one any different"?  Hangout comedies tend to allow for more character development, which is why I've always preferred them to pure joke machines.  As far as I'm concerned, there can never be too many hangout comedies when you can have so many different kinds of character combinations.  Ben & Kate didn't exactly reinvent the wheel for the genre, it just created great material within the constructs of the hangout comedy.  Because of its strong cast, who had an easy chemistry with one another, scenes had such a loose improvised feel.  Most of the funniest bits felt like casual, off-the-cuff remarks that were thrown in on the last take.  Even when the show wasn't at its funniest, it was just so much fun to watch the characters do their thing.  The show also contained some of the warmest, most organic interactions on television.  Ben and Kate Fox felt like real siblings, the kind that may get competitive from time to time, but ultimately love and support each other.  It was in the titular relationship that the show was able to create such a great balance between comedy and emotional beats.  Unlike latter-season Modern Family and The Office, the emotional material on Ben & Kate never felt forced, mostly because of how well Nat Faxon and Dakota Johnson always nailed the sappy stuff.  Sometimes, episodes would end on genuinely heartwarming and goosebump-inducing moments that would just floor you with their surprising effectiveness (see: "21st Birthday" and "The Trip").

I tend to fall in line with the general critical consensus when it comes to TV shows, but Ben & Kate was one of the few on which I was out of sync with critics.  Even those who liked it weren't particularly enthusiastic about it.  Most wrote it off as "light, pleasant fun with little substance to it."  Others went as far as saying that the show doled out the same joke types, emotional beats, and generic sitcom plots.  The most baffling criticism is when people said that they didn't laugh at all at the show, yet they laughed at The Mindy Project.  I'll be the first to admit that the plotting was generally weak, relying far too much on Ben and Kate having some kind of sibling competition in the early going and too much on Kate constantly needing her status as a mother to be reaffirmed late in the first season's run.  However, I tend to think that the internet overrates plot, especially in comedy.  If I laugh at a show and it makes me happy -- and I can't stress enough just how darn happy this show made me -- then that's usually satisfaction enough.

By the time the end of 2012 rolled around, the show landed at #3 on Favorite TV Shows of the Year list, but its cancellation looked to be imminent.  Ratings were low and not very stable and Fox seemed more invested in The Mindy Project.  When the show was officially cancelled in late January, I wasn't shocked, but I was still devastated that such a promising show wouldn't live to see a second season, or even a completed first.  As the months passed, however, I found myself surprised by just how little I missed Ben & Kate.  Part of this was because the 2013 episodes were the weakest of the season and it certainly didn't help that I now had higher expectations after such a strong 2012.  Another reason could be that I also caught up on New Girl, a show that began to fill the same slot in my heart that Ben & Kate did, while also revealing some of the weaknesses of the latter.  Was it best that Ben & Kate ended when it did, before it began to stagnate?

If the 3 yet-to-be-aired-in-the-US episodes that recently surfaced on the internet are any indication, then Ben & Kate was definitely taken from us far too soon.  These installments breathe new life into a show that I briefly feared might have shown all it had to offer, delivering tons of laughs on top of a characteristically strong emotional core.  By introducing Kate and Ben's father, the show is able to explore their dynamic and help the audience understand just why they're so dependent on each other.  What's more is that their relationship with their father is a wonderfully nuanced one.  He isn't cartoonishly absent and heartless, just aloof.  Throughout his mini-arc, you can see just how much Kate and Ben long for his attention and affection, even as adults.  These new episodes also show that the writers weren't afraid of moving the plot forward.  Without getting too spoilery, the four main characters each find themselves in a different place in life by the end of the three episodes.  It's certainly a shame that we won't be able to see where the threads set up in episode 16 would have eventually led to, but the show ends on a touching note that feels satisfying nonetheless.

RIP Ben & Kate (2012-2013)

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