Around the end of the last decade, comedies took a sharp turn from a more sarcastic, droll sense of humor, into lighter, happier fare. Once Jim and Pam became an item on The Office, shows like Glee, Modern Family and Parks and Recreation started popping up with warmth and heart. This fall season has been a host to many sitcoms about unique family situations with these brighter outlooks, but none has gone as sweet as Ben and Kate, about a brother who moves back in with his sister to help raise her daughter. While Ben and Kate nails the sunny disposition, so far it hasn’t landed the humor aspect quite yet.
The basic synopsis of the show is that Ben never grew up, while Kate had a child and had to grow up too early. Ben is back in town to check up on/stalk his ex-girlfriend, who he exclusively calls ‘Mrs. Ben Fox,’ when he receives an e-mail from her. He finds out she is getting married and plans on crashing the wedding with the help of his friend Tommy. Meanwhile, Kate is busy trying to get her love life back together for the first time since having her kid Maddie. She’s been seeing George, a guy whose high-fives can’t meet Ben’s standards.
Kate helps Ben get to his ex, even if it’s too late, and Ben helps Kate when he finds out that George is seeing someone else. As we see through flashbacks, Ben basically raised Kate as their unseen parents screamed at each other from another room. This relationship anchors the story and has some touching moments that utilize their past in the present.
Nat Faxon, who won an Oscar for best adapted screenplay along with Community’s Jim Rash and Alexander Payne for The Descendants, is clearly more heart than brains as Ben. However it almost seems like Faxon is trying too hard in one of his first leading roles. He spits out jokes rapid-fire, and something doesn’t quite feel right in his delivery. As he gets more comfortable with the role, it’ll hopefully get better, but in the pilot, it does feel a bit stiff.
Dakota Johnson is fantastic though as Kate and pulls off a perfect blend of sweet yet awkward. It’s no surprise the episode is directed by Jake Kasdan, who also directed the pilot for New Girl, and Kate plays at times like a more grounded version of Zooey Deschanel’s Jess.
But the real standout here is Lucy Punch as Kate’s co-worker/friend B.J. Punch is always a great addition to any project, but Ben and Kate could finally be her breakout performance. Punch was fantastic on the oft-forgotten sitcom gem The Class (which also starred The Walking Dead’s Jon Bernthal, Party Down’s Lizzy Caplan and Jesse Tyler Ferguson of Modern Family), but she’s even better here, bringing the biggest laughs of the pilot, while also not going overboard with her humorous and slutty character.
There is a ridiculous amount of sweetness in Ben and Kate, but that is effective here. The callbacks to Ben and Kate as troubled children and the way the two help each other in situations, putting the other before themselves, is heartfelt and touching. It’s not playing for gigantic laughs, and it doesn’t need to, but the ones it does go for just don’t feel like they’re hitting the right way. Ben and Kate has plenty of promise, but it could maybe use just a little fine-tuning.