It hasn’t been a great season for new sitcoms. NBC’s attempts to swing for a broader audience (Animal Practice, Guys with Kids, The New Normal) mostly missed with Go On being the only hit of the bunch, CBS’s only new offering — Partners — was given the axe after six episodes, ABC debuted two poorly-reviewed modest ratings hits in Malibu Country and The Neighbors, and Fox’s The Mindy Project has been subject to a bevy of casting changes and retooling. Amidst all this turmoil, Fox’s other freshman comedy, Ben and Kate, has quietly found its footing and become the 2012-13 season’s best new sitcom — and not just but default.
A great sitcom pilot is hard to come by these days. While shows like Cheers and Arrested Development seemed to effortlessly find their voices from the second the cameras started rolling, there really hasn’t been a top-notch sitcom pilot since Modern Family’s in 2009. Ben and Kate is no exception, but since its first episode, the show has developed into a much stronger show, as good sitcoms tend to do. The four adult characters — childish older brother Ben (Nat Faxon), his neurotic sister Kate (Dakota Johnson), Kate’s foul-mouthed best friend BJ (Lucy Punch), and Tommy (Echo Kellum) — have really gelled into a funny unit, with Kate’s six-year-old daughter Maddie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) occasionally being pushed to the background but getting in some good lines or reaction shots when she’s onscreen. The dynamic between the characters works well and each of the four adults has a funny and interesting relationship with the other ones, making the small cast feel like a tight, cohesive unit.
Nat Faxon’s Ben is ostensibly the center of the show, and while TV and movies are overrun with man-child characters, his puts a different spin on the archetype. Ben has a work ethic and an obsessive, competitive streak that most characters like him act, often throwing himself into half-assed inventions and hare-brained schemes. It’s a nice juxtaposition to his immature, slobbish nature to not have him be an ambitious guy who’s only weighed down by his incompetence, and Tommy, who has some of the show’s best lines, is an apt sidekick for his antics. Ben’s outlandish behavior, like when he created a fake emergency to test Kate or poaching golfballs from the country club he (briefly) works at, is often the highlight of the show. Lucy Punch also stands out as Kate’s fellow bartender/best friend BJ, a Texas-born Brit whose debauchery and pettiness is always good for a laugh.
While Ben, Tommy, and BJ bring most of the show’s laughs, Kate’s the heart of Ben and Kate, with her romantic life being the only one that’s not mainly played for laughs. Kate’s arc with love interest Will was the show’s first stab at a multi-episode story arc, and the writers handled it ably. Despite her relationship woes getting serious at times, the show always mixed broad laughs into the Will and Kate storylines – the “Guitar Face” episode being the best example – and that’s one of the strengths Ben and Kate and found in its first eleven episodes: mixing humor and emotion. The show’s getting faster and faster, packing in a lot of jokes per minute in each episode. It’s not quite reaching Happy Endings speeds, but the mixture of serious and funny moments is balanced well and it’s pretty impressive how many jokes the show can pile up while still leaving room for the occasionally-gooey poignant stuff.
Ben and Kate has been free of the excessive cast changes that its fellow new Fox comedy The Mindy Project has been subject to, but there’s been a little bit of changeover behind the scenes. Neil Goldman and Garrett Donovan (Community) were made the showrunners starting with the second episode but left citing creative differences. Goldman and Donovan were replaced by Ben and Kate writers John Quaintance and David Feeney, but there are no signs of major creative tweaks in the show itself, just the show evolving as the writers continue to explore the characters and play to the series’ strengths.
Despite the show finding its voice faster than any new sitcom this year, Ben and Kate is at a greater risk for cancellation than those other shows too. TV by the Numbers says Ben and Kate is certain to be canceled by May due to its weak ratings, but the show is at a disadvantage because of a weak lead-in (Raising Hope) and from facing off against NBC’s singing competition Nielsen juggernaut The Voice. With only eight episodes left before Ben and Kate wraps up its first season order, the show still has time to turn things around ratings-wise and to continue to grow creatively – despite it already being far ahead of the freshman sitcom pack.