Why Ben & Kate had a following

A reader said the other day that if I’m taking requests, I should try to explain “why the Internet seems so fascinated with Ben & Kate, a show I find entirely unobjectionable but also very weird to get obsessed with.” Well, I am taking requests, so here goes.

I’m not obsessed with Ben & Kate myself, but I do like it, while understanding that it’s not long for this world. It’s produced by the same powerful Fox executive, Peter Chernin, who does New Girl (and Terra Nova, and Touch, and Allen Gregory; his track record is what we call “mixed”), and has many things in common with that show, having been picked up at a moment when it looked like New Girl was going to be a huge breakout hit rather than the smaller hit it is. Both shows are heavily influenced by indie comedy films; both were built around young movie actresses with a mix of mainstream and indie cred (Abby Elliott, the original lead of Ben & Kate, was dropped and replaced with Dakota Johnson, who was clearly in line to be the next Zooey Deschanel). That in itself may be one answer to why Ben & Kate has acquired a certain following; people like New Girl online, and this show is more like New Girl than any other show on the night.

But still, why did people get interested in Ben & Kate more than in all the other indie-influenced comedies that came out this year – more than The Mindy Project, which had much more publicity, and more than Go On, which is actually popular? I don’t know for sure, but here are a few reasons that come to mind.

1. A type of cast we haven’t seen before. Most comedies at the moment are based around some pretty familiar casting templates. Most typically, almost everyone is young and cute (New Girl, Guys With Kids, Happy Endings). Then you have the handsome but jaded hero surrounded by an appropriate mix of pretty people and quirky character actors (Community, Go On, Animal Practice). But while Ben & Kate is primarily a pretty-people show, it also seems to have at least some people we’re not used to seeing on TV in major roles. Much of this comes from the presence of Nat Faxon as the male lead; he looks like a guy who never had expensive dental work to make him more conventionally Hollywood handsome, and it’s a novelty to have this man – Jim Rash’s writing partner, a guy who really does kind of look like the improv comic he is – taking a role that would normally be filled by a John Krasinski/Adam Scott type. Lucy Punch is also not a conventional sidekick, if only because of the accent, and the kid, Maggie Elizabeth Jones, is the kind of girl who usually gets passed over in favour of the more show-offy kid actors. So it’s just a different cast with different rhythms and sounds and looks than the other shows.

2. It’s a bit tonally different from other comedies. Most single-camera comedies have become locked into a formula almost as rigid as their four-camera brethren. The multiple plots per episode, the Ralph Wiggum-esque observations from the “weird” characters, and of course, the moment of lesson-learning (usually with music) that occurs toward the end of the episode. Ben & Kate has all these things at times, including the bog-standard device of a Bland Love Interest who doesn’t like the heroine’s crazy friends and therefore proves that he’s not worthy of belonging to the group. Still, it’s less loud and pushy than most network comedies. The good and bad ones alike have this slightly sweaty air about them, like they’re constantly trying to prove how funny they are. (Because to get through all the points at which a network comedy can be killed, you have to prove you’re funny at every stage.) The show is particularly willing to use many of the tools of modern comedy for dramatic rather than comic purposes: last night’s episode had a cutaway flashback that was done for the sake of sentimentality, not for a joke, and the quasi-improvised bits are sometimes used to give a feeling of reality to the “genuine” moments, instead of being reserved for awkward comedy.

3. The brother-sister relationship is a bit of a novelty. It’s a way of finding a different way into the familiar pairing of a button-down woman who doesn’t want to have any fun and a man-child who doesn’t want to be responsible. But the absence of sexual tension (one hopes) makes it different from the other relationship comedies.

4. The look of the show is invitingly warm. A lot of the indie-style comedies look a bit drab and washed-out, full of ugly zooms, like somebody’s memory of what ’70s movies looked like. Ben & Kate‘s photography is very pretty, very mellow, and very colourful. The look of it may not scream “comedy,” but it does bathe the show in a sort of halo of warmth that makes you feel good for watching it. A show like Up All Night, which is also not long on laughs, doesn’t look very pretty either, and so it doesn’t offer the compensating visual sweetness to make you feel like you’ve had a good time.

Ultimately I think the biggest reason Ben & Kate had people liking it was reason # 1: the people are just a little different from other people on TV, and collectively, it’s not the kind of cast we’re accustomed to seeing on comedies. On The Mindy Project, we’re mostly faced with a standard TV cast except for Mindy herself, and even she is a very familiar TV personality thanks to her years on a successful show. Ben & Kate doesn’t have a high-powered comedy cast, or even necessarily a great one – certainly Dakota Johnson is not a Zooey Deschanel, someone who has the star quality that compels you to watch even if you don’t think her character is all that – but it feels like a collection of people who didn’t come directly from the same casting pool of cute-but-funny people, the pool that gives us David Walton and Kyle Bornheimer and Olivia Munn over and over until we finally give in and accept them.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter because the show is going to be canceled anyway (Mindy‘s chances probably aren’t much better, but if the network tries to save one of those shows, it’ll be that one). But it’s been a pleasant experience, and a somewhat different experience than the other comedies that were on the air this season.

(Update: A commenter correctly noted that it’s too dismissive to say that “it doesn’t really matter” just because the show is going to be canceled. True, the following the show has won’t save it from cancellation, but that’s not the only way in which a following “matters.” An enjoyable show is an enjoyable show, whether it lasts 19 episodes or 190.)

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