BEN AND KATE: First Thoughts on FOX’s Fractured Family Sitcom Awesomeness

Ben and Kate (2012) – Season 1, Episodes 1-4 – Starring Dakota Johnson, Nat Faxon, Lucy Punch, Maggie Elizabeth Jones, and Echo Kellum.

America, why are you not watching this show? Seriously, it’s in moments like this that I hate you. The only reason that I can imagine you’re not watching this show is either because you don’t know about it, or because you don’t like to laugh.

BEN AND KATE is a seriously funny show.

The premise here is that irresponsible Ben (Nat Faxon) has returned home and moved in with his responsible younger sister, Kate (Dakota Johnson, daughter of Sonny Crocket and Melanie Griffith). The comedy revolves around the juxtaposition of Ben and Kate’s opposite approach to life – Ben the dreamer and Kate the responsible one. The series regulars are rounded out with Kate’s smart daughter Maddie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones), her British co-worker BJ (Lucy Punch), and Ben’s best friend, Tommy (Exho Kellum). All five actors can be counted on to generate laughs, and BEN AND KATE wonderfully contrasts the absurdity of Ben, BJ, and Tommy with Kate’s uptight, conservative approach to life.

It’s understandable that Kate is the grown-up in the show as she’s the one with a daughter, but the program beautifully balances her and Ben’s strengths and weaknesses. At its core, BEN AND KATE is about how Ben’s dreams never come true because he gives up on them too quickly while Kate’s dreams have been buried beneath her responsibility. Balance is really key to this show – take episode 4, where Ben decides to throw Kate the 21st birthday party she never had because she was pregnant with Maddie. For her 26th birthday, then, Ben has a house party, inviting Kate’s crazy best friend from high school. Ben and BJ end up ditching the party so they can go steal a tree from Ben’s ex-girlfriend’s house, while Kate and High School Pal go downtown to get crazy. BJ ends up sticking up for Ben with his ex-girlfriend by making out with him in front of the ex, while Tommy again gives voice to his long-time desire for Kate. He doesn’t get to make with her, but at the end of the episode, she gives him a kiss on the cheek and a few words of encouragement, while BJ’s make out session with Ben is forgotten.

If I tune in to a random episode of a sitcom, I just want it to be funny, but if a show wants me to stick around long-term, it’s got to have characters I care about and it’s got to show some narrative strength. BEN AND KATE scores on both accounts. Why the show really works for me – even beyond the laughs it generates – is that it never loses sight of the fact that these five people care about each other. There’s varying degrees of caring here, but this is clearly a unit. Where a show like Modern Family shows how the nuclear family has expanded, BEN AND KATE go in the opposite direction, and speak to (and for) the fractured family and how people who randomly enter your life can become every bit as important (and often moreso) than blood relations.

That latter point puts BEN AND KATE in the same ballpark as a show like Community, and like that show, BEN AND KATE generates a good amount of its comedy from absurd humor. The difference is that where Community embraces that absurdity in every aspect of an episode, BEN AND KATE largely keep the (relatively mild) absurdity to the dialogue. At breakfast, the non-Kate people are planning Kate’s birthday. Maddie (who’s 5 or 6, remember) says she wants her mom to have a mermaid party, BJ tells her that’s a dumb idea and when Maddie insists it isn’t, BJ tells the kid she can’t even spell mermaid and if she can, they can have the party.

“M,” Madde begins, “U-”

BJ is victorious and Ben looks to his niece and says, “It’s tough to see you choke like that.”

There’s a sweetness, too, in BEN AND KATE, typically shown about once an episode where one of the siblings says something really nice to the other. Like when Kate is struggling in the premiere episode, and Ben tells her she needs to relax. “You’ve made one mistake in your life,” he tells her, referencing her getting pregnant, “and it turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to you.” Or in the fourth episode, when we see Kate spending her birthdays alone at a ice cream shop. This solitary manner of spending her birthday is the entire reason Ben wants to throw his sister a big party, but at the end of the episode, after each has had their own wacky adventure, Kate tells Ben that she was never alone on her birthday, and the show cuts back to the ice cream scenes to reveal that Maddie was always with her.

Nat Faxon and Dakota Johnson are really great together. Faxon expertly pulls off the idiot dreamer I can’t help but like, while Johnson makes me want to step inside my TV and help her out. Both actors do a great job (in very different ways) of making me always remember that these are two people for whom life has not worked out as they had hoped.

BEN AND KATE is just a really funny show that’s put together really well. It’s my favorite new show of the 2012 fall season. So watch it, or I’ll come to your house and give you a stern talking to.

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3 thoughts on “BEN AND KATE: First Thoughts on FOX’s Fractured Family Sitcom Awesomeness

  1. Good post; I definitely agree that the show has a lot to offer to TV enthusiasts. I’ve been a huge fan of Faxon since his cameo in Orange County, and I’ve even caught everyone up around my office at DISH on how talented he is behind the camera, too. I’m going to save the entirety of this first season to my Hopper for those nights I need a few extra laughs. It’s nice to have a DVR with enough memory to save everything I want, instead of having to pick and choose like I’ve done with past DVRs. Cheers to a new show becoming a staple in households everywhere.

  2. Based on your recommendation, watched the first episode, but I wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about it — does it get better?

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