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Documents, Not Institutions: On 'Benched' And Not Sweating The Future

Eliza Coupe as Nina and Jay Harrington as Phil in USA's <em>Benched</em>.
Isabella Vosmikova
Eliza Coupe as Nina and Jay Harrington as Phil in USA's Benched.

Eliza Coupe is one of the most precise comedic actresses you will ever see. Every muscle is at work on comedy, all the time. She has the kind of face that tempts you to say she has a great face, but that makes it seem like luck, and it's not luck. It's work.

Coupe was on the last couple of seasons of Scrubs and then got more attention from a lot of comedy types playing Jane on Happy Endings. After that show's cancellation, its cast has scattered to some pretty good gigs (Casey Wilson has her own show, Marry Me; Damon Wayans Jr. is back on New Girl, the pilot of which he filmed before Happy Endings was unexpectedly renewed; Adam Pally is having great fun on The Mindy Project). Coupe's sharp, warm but hyper work seemed like it might be hard to place outside the show's cartoony universe, but now she's landed in a new comedy on USA. Better yet, it was co-created (with Damon Jones) by the very funny Michaela Watkins, last seen killing it on Transparent and on the late and very, very lamented Trophy Wife.

Between Coupe, Watkins, additional executive producer Jon Embom (Party Down) and Coupe's co-star Jay Harrington — who was in the great, weird, short-lived Better Off TedBenched feels a little like a bunch of highly talented comedy people got tired of reading loving eulogies about the shows they used to be on, said "OKAY, ANYWAY," and made themselves something new.

Benched is the story of Nina, an attorney who takes a breakup phone call from her doofy boyfriend right before she finds out she's not making partner. A meltdown follows in which she breaks various items precious to her terrible boss ("That was a gift from Elton John!" he exclaims after she smashes one vase). It's your basic Person Is Brought Low And Must Begin Again premise; that part is familiar in concept but fresh in its sparky, energetic execution, in which Nina manages to be very funny and very put-upon but not pathetic. "You know you're never going to work in corporate law again!" her terrible boss barks at her. "Is that right?" she answers defiantly. "Well, watch me, 'cause the next job I get is going to be ten times better than this ass carnival." [I wasn't sure if I could say "ass carnival," because what even is that? But if it bothers you, think of it as some sort of donkey exhibition.]

Nina's next job, however, is at the public defender's office where everyone, it turns out, is a little weird. The first co-worker she encounters is a pantsuited, helmet-haired blonde named Cheryl, delightfully played by genuinely and wonderfully odd duck Maria Bamford, who's instantly in trouble for having lost track of a prisoner who was her client. She complains about how this was not her fault: "Apparently when you leave a client to go pee, you have to tell a guard, or they won't guard, which you'd think they would do automatically since they are guards."

Harrington plays another attorney in the office who quickly becomes Nina's verbal sparring partner and very appealing love interest, and what makes the show's handling of their relationship so great is that it's not coy. These characters are adults; they are a little long in the tooth for the kind of flirtation where he comes on to her and she gives the "Well, I never!" and then they fight and so forth. Here, by the end of the first episode, the flirtation is already text, not subtext, and that's a lot more interesting than bicker-bicker-bicker for half a season.

Two side notes: First, the pilot episode had made me a little uncomfortable in its portrayal of Nina's introduction to the public defender's office. It involves the heavy employment of hip-hop, which I could have lived without as it seemed to be hitting some pretty stereotypical beats. But in the second episode, she winds up explicitly talking about the fact that the primary crime of many of her clients is being poor, since a poor Mexican kid who smokes pot gets deported, while a rich white kid who smokes pot is considered to be a perfectly ordinary college student. It's better treatment of that topic than I feared from that opening.

Second, you should be aware that Benched is under the relaxed profanity rules of cable, under the system where you can say the S word, but not the F word. I like to abbreviate this as "S, no F," or SNOF. Many basic cable channels follow SNOF rules or modified SNOF, unlike broadcast television, which follows NOSNOF rules, or pay cable, which follows ATFWYCSO rules. (All The F Words You Can Spit Out.) Our own Neda Ulaby, by the way, reported on this last year. So if you prefer your comedy with no profanity, this may not be up your alley, although I would argue that missing the chance to watch Eliza Coupe wrap her mouth around swears is missing a great thing in life.

All of this is a lead-up to saying: I like the show so much, but I admit, I feel like I've been here before. With Trophy Wife, with Happy Endings, with Enlisted, with Better Off Ted, with Ben And Kate, with ... well, heck, with Sports Night in the late '90s. Affection for a new show — any new show that doesn't seem pre-destined to be a blockbuster — comes with a heavy dose of anxiety: Oh, I'm going to get to like this, and then they're going to cancel it, right? I've already been through it this season with NBC's A To Z, which I had just begun to believe was going to turn into a solid show when word went out that the network had pulled the plug. (Producer Rashida Jones has been quick to point out that they are not technically canceled, but the odds seem very long.) (This is my favorite tweet from Jones on the topic.)

This happens a lot. And the more outlets proliferate, the more things people get to try, and the more things people get to try, the more likely they are to try something that's just right for you, and the more likely it is that that thing may get lost in the shuffle. (I have no specific reason to believe this will happen with Benched, it's just a generalized anxiety I feel myself having with everything.) There was a time in the days of three or four channels when shows either came and went and were forgotten — they "failed" — or they became institutions, running for years. That was the goal: become stable, become eternal, become routine. (This could happen, by the way, with both good shows and bad ones.)

But now, that cycle is much more hectic, and success — both a successful show-making experience and a happy show-watching experience — really need to be redefined. I don't think of Happy Endings as a failure, for instance. I think of it as a show I got to watch for a limited amount of time, during which it made me laugh and exposed me to new funny people. I think of Trophy Wife the same way, even though its run was shorter. The persistent on-demand availability of shows no longer in production (you can still buy Trophy Wife very easily from Amazon or iTunes, for instance) means that just like a movie can still be a great one to recommend to people even though it's a closed book, there's no reason not to say, "Hey, are you looking for an offbeat, sweet, warm, kinda weird comedy? Here's one I loved." Same with Enlisted, same with whatever.

Obviously, it's sad when projects don't get to continue. Any of these shows, I'd rather there were five seasons than one. (I don't know if I'd rather there were ten seasons than five, though.) Any of them, I'd like to be the wealthy dowager who could create a Warm Weird Comedy Endowment that could support them for as long as the people making them had stories to tell.

But from time to time, I hear people say — and I hear myself guiltily feel — that there's no point in getting attached to something until you're confident it won't be canceled, and I think that feeling needs to be turned back. Don't not watch a great show because it might not be around for a long time. Among other things, that creates a vicious cycle in which the kind of things that fight to find audiences are guaranteed to never find them. A longshot becomes a no-shot, precisely because people were sad that it was a longshot, and that's not quite ... logical. Part of me believes firmly that if everyone who would have really enjoyed these shows had been willing to try them, they would have lasted longer, and that stings.

If you like A to Z, talk about it a lot. If you like Benched, talk about it a lot. Worst-case scenario, these things don't last, they don't make it into "institution" status, so what? Fun fact: there will wind up being more episodes of A to Z, even if it's over, than there were of the British The Office. Maybe this crowd of people makes six seasons of Benched; that's great. Maybe they make one season of this and five seasons of whatever the next idea is, or one season each of the next five ideas.

Parks And Recreation has felt bubble-ish, teetering, imperiled, whatever you want to say, for the entire time it's been on television. It never crossed over into "broadcast television institution!" in the sense of huge ratings and the absolute right to stay on for as long as it wanted. It stayed itself, funny and specific and warm and philosophical and silly, and now it's ending. It's managed to hang on for seven seasons (though three of those were or will be shortened to varying degrees), but if it had only hung on for three, I'd still consider it a success. I'd still take it as a document: "Here's a thing people made that they loved."

Here's my advice, for whatever it's worth, for viewers: Don't sweat ratings too much. If you watch the things you really value and you talk about them and support them and don't try to guess in advance what's got legs and what doesn't, you'll do more good for the general state of television than you will if you try to master the science, which is laughably unscientific a lot of the time anyway. Most viewers don't know the business side of television very well — many critics don't either — and ratings are a business thing. Your part is to be an enthusiast. Be sad when things end and happy when things are good, as Benched is right now.

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Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.

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