Ah wait. You can’t. (Because, as I argue, you are toothless.)
That headline is much, much harsher than USA’s Benched deserves. It’s only there as a stand-in for the sort of cleverness I’d like to put into a headline, a solid enough concept that ultimately does not go far enough. Or sometimes anywhere. It’s not clichéd, per se, nor necessarily uninteresting because it’s been done before. It’s step one of a two, or three, or four step bit that would really be funny, would really set it apart. or at least make it feel like a more substantial way to spend half an hour.
I’m talking about Benched as much as the headline at this point, if you hadn’t caught on.
I’ve been on a big pacing kick lately when critiquing shows, comedy shows especially.1 We’re decades removed from the setup-joke-reaction plod of the 70s, 80s, and 90s2 and well into an era that expects a continual level of whatever flavor a comedy serves up: Arrested Development, Happy Endings, The Office, Community, hell The Michael J. Fox Show – if a show today isn’t packed wall-to-wall with comedy it’s certainly getting a little cramped next to the sofa and that third loveseat.3
But that’s just the new baseline, a baseline that Benched and its H.E.-birthed brethren Marry Me tend to meet episode to episode. Where both shows are going wrong is not so much quantity of comedy (or what they hope passes for it) but the particular qualities they don’t bring along. Marry Me relies way too much on its writing – very witty, rather quick writing – and the characters drift just enough that one loses focus and interest. Picking up the pace to near-constant velocity4 might cover that flaw for a bit, but it still wouldn’t make us stick around.
Benched, meanwhile, lacks teeth. Characters more believable than, deeper than, most other shows5 utter lines that ground the conceit, the setting perfectly well, providing a great foundation for launching whatever twist or quirk will make this workplace comedy a workplace comedy worth watching. But they don’t take that next step, they don’t undermine their conceit while simultaneously leaving it intact – see: The Office, either version, for evidence that it can be done – such that we laugh and laugh at the contrast. Even if you weren’t expecting a nasty turn, or waiting for that comedic overextension, even if you were perfectly fine with whatever Benched just served up you’ll find yourself wondering ‘Is that all there is?’ soon enough.6
Picking up the pace, again, would cover the insubstantialness here as well – probably even better than Marry Me since you’d have more substantial characters just doing more things. But I don’t think that’s what should happen. I think Benched should take a big step forward from where its jokes and conceits currently end; it should be meaner. It should put every flaw of every character more on display and not acknowledge it, because there’s still enough good in each of the characters that this won’t become It’s Always Sunny… leaving Benched to do its own thing. Except better. More engagingly. Funnier.
It’s unlikely to happen, of course – USA seems to have set a boundary for its comedies well away from the depraved territory in which FX lets its shows roam; and that’s fine, we don’t need everyone trampling the same space. The problem is USA’s patch is the wrong patch of land for comedy to grow these days.
- Although Breakneck Competency will be performing weekly in my living room. ↵
- Plenty of excellent stuff in there; I’m talking about the general sense and sensibility of comedy on television, the Ideal Sitcom, as it were. ↵
- I AM SO GOOD AT METAPHORS, Y’ALL. ↵
- Not a thing, I know. ↵
- Though it’s a looooowwwwww bar. ↵
- That’s what she said. ↵