Fox may have put too much stock in the appeal of awkward quirk when the network added The Mindy Project and Ben and Kate to a Tuesday night line-up that revolves around Zooey Deschanel’s perky comedic stylings on New Girl. At the moment, both of these cute new sitcoms have uncertain futures. The more troubled of the pair is Ben and Kate–the comedy’s middling ratings are understandable but unfortunate because it has so much potential and could benefit from a second season.
The show finds Nat Faxon and Dakota Johnson playing adult siblings living under the same roof. Ben (Faxon) is the irresponsible, goofball older brother while Kate (Johnson) is the mature one — she’s a single mother and has a steady but unfulfilling job as a bar manager. Predictably, Ben encourages Kate to loosen up and Kate encourages Ben to grow up. It’s the standard, sort of clichéd odd couple set up but is often very funny.
There’s more here than the cliché, but it’s also missing a key ingredient.
Faxon is a confident comedian who can make unexceptional scenarios (like a spaced-out trip down the rabbit hole after eating weed candy from Amsterdam) amusing and Johnson as the romance-challenged little sis is also impressive — Kate’s tongue tied flirtations with her potential love interests are usually the highlight of any given episode. Lucy Punch and Echo Kellum who play the duo’s best friends, BJ and Tommy, play off of the two leads well. The four characters along with Kate’s six-year-old daughter Maddie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) have a fun and heartfelt bond that is the source of Ben and Kate’s immense charm. So, if the show is funny and charming, why isn’t it connecting with viewers?
The answer is actually pretty simple: there isn’t any conflict on this show. Well, there isn’t enough conflict. Aside from the sort of sweet relationship that exists between the characters, there isn’t anything that’s driving the story. In an episode called “Career Day,” free-spirited, unemployed Ben decides to find a job that will impress people when he speaks at Maddie’s school’s career day. He hasn’t turned over a new leaf, though, the job hunt is simply a flight of fancy, a short-lived scheme that doesn’t push the character forward in any way. It’s actually fine that Ben doesn’t grow or really learn anything after becoming a wine distributer (that’s the career he settles on), but for this plot to work and for the an audience to care about what’s going on, Ben has to at least appear to genuinely care about this job hunt, even if that passion only lasts for the duration of the episode. But that’s not what happens — you get the feeling that he knows that he’ll shortly be moving on to whole new series of shenanigans.
Even when an episode’s central problem is trivial, the problem can’t be trivial for the characters. That’s just basic sitcom stuff. Seinfeld–the show about nothing–is perhaps the best example of this. Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer got worked up over truly stupid, inconsequential things like parking spaces and non-fat yogurt but they approached these tiny dilemmas with enthusiasm.
Ben and Kate floats from joke to joke without much purpose or enthusiasm, which makes it seem kind of boring — series creator Dana Fox was obviously aiming for levity but ended up with fluff. However, the show really has almost all of the ingredients of a great sitcom (an incredibly likable cast and premise), the writing just needs to be more focused, it needs more oomph, something that could be fixed easily in a second season where the show’s emphasis would be able to shift from getting to know these characters to developing them.