It’s a comedic trope as old as time: throw two polar opposites together, and wait for crazy things to happen. First, frustration builds. Then, tempers erupt. Finally, the characters realize that, despite differences, love (romantic or platonic) still conquers all. Fox’s new comedy Ben and Kate, about a mismatched brother and sister, looks like another tired Odd Couple retread, and hits all the expected notes. But thanks to both a game cast and some winning writing, the show’s pilot episode manages to be surprisingly delightful.
The comedy follows Kate (Dakota Jackson), whose only flirtation with recklessness resulted in an unplanned pregnancy, and her older brother Ben (Nate Faxon), who wouldn’t recognize responsibility if it walked up to him wearing a name tag. Kate and her five-year-old daughter Maddie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) lead an unexciting existence, though Ben pops in every once in a while to wreak some havoc. In the pilot, Ben comes to town to stop the wedding of his former love, complicating Kate’s life just when she’s starting to get serious with a man for the first time since Maddie’s birth. The siblings embark upon various hijinks, with support from their wacky friends.
It all sounds completely predictable and to some extent, it is. The sentimentality kicks in right on time, and viewers will see certain punch-lines coming from miles away. Yet Ben and Kate does something unexpected: it takes its time. Writer Dana Fox lets the jokes build past when many would have cut them off, so the laughs keep coming when you’ve expected them to stop. In one sequence, Ben attempts a three-point turn that ends up taking over six points. With each move, you expect him to finally drive off, so each agonizing failure for him results in more hilarity. In another, Kate’s wild best friend B.J. (Lucy Punch) advises her to seduce a man by drawing attention to her mouth, and proceeds to demonstrate for a mesmerizing couple of minutes with cocktail straws, glasses, and even her own hair.
The actors turn in fully human, endearing performances that save their characters from becoming stereotypes. As Kate, Jackson paints a portrait of a woman hindered by her desire for planning and safety. Her awkwardness about letting loose never feels like a shtick, and it’s all the more adorable for that. Punch plays the ditsy flirtatiousness of her character to its fullest, while Echo Kellum portrays Ben’s friend Tommy with hilarious intensity.
The only actor who currently seems to be having some trouble toeing the line that separates imperfect from annoying is Nate Faxon as Ben. The man-child needs to be magnetic, to explain why people love him so much even when his antics become tiresome. But Faxon’s wild-eyed performance see-saws back and forth from fascinating to repulsive. Sometimes, you just want Kate to kick him out already. In a way, the show mirrors fellow Fox comedy New Girl, where the main character is so self-consciously quirky that the show only really lands when it concentrates on its ensemble all working together.
Luckily, in Ben and Kate, that happens a lot. Viewers can expect to feel about this show like Kate feels about her brother: occasionally annoyed, but more often filled with inexplicable love.
Will it last through the season? Yes, probably. It has no big names or exciting premise, but it's a solid comedy with the potential to be great.