On the surface, Benched is very much the story of one woman’s journey – but like any comedy worth its salt, is really a story of a group of people, anchored by said protagonist. And as expected, the early episodes of Benched were superficial and Nina-centric at a rate that isn’t sustainable long-term for any show, comedy or drama. “Sell It” is the show’s first explicit attempt to tell two independent stories integrating all the major and minor characters of the show together, a half-hour that stands as the show’s funniest to date, but not exactly its most consistent.
The parts that do work, however, are important for the show’s long-term value: with “Sell It”, Phil finally feels like he’s on the path to becoming a multi-dimensional character, a key flaw I thought was holding back some of the most important exchanges in the first three episodes. “Sell It” is up to the task, giving Phil a competitive edge, one he doesn’t actually want to have, which gives his reluctant measure of masculinity with Trent throughout the episode the small tweak it needed to feel different than the million other “old alpha male boyfriend competes with possible new alpha male boyfriend” – he wants to be the laid back lawyer who gives everyone a trophy, but the raging ranked college tennis player lives on within him (even though Trent kicking his butt in tennis proves that persona is not one he should probably embody anymore).
It’s important for Benched to make Phil a more interesting, relatable character: as the second half of the show’s central comedic duo, there’s an impetus to make Phil’s character something more than a stock set of set-up lines and put downs aimed at Nina to keep her flustered all the time (especially if the show wants to make him a romantic foil, which is not something I’m exactly dying for). “Sell It” breathes necessary life into him – and more importantly, does them without Nina in the room, pairing him off with Trent for the majority of the episode, and accentuating the ends of acts with interactions between Nina and Phil to track their progression through the Trials of Humility they’re in this episode.
“Sell It” extends this courtesy to other characters, too: Trent, Burt, and Boring Larry (hey, it’s not to his face!) are all brought to life in this hour, adding to the raunchy ensemble that includes Carol and Carl (sorry Micah; you’re still just a girl with a lip ring who wears suits) and giving some much-needed atmosphere to the world of Benched, which was only going to be able to rely on Coupe’s extensive comedic charms to carry the weight of the show. By bringing these characters into closer orbit with Nina and Phil, “Sell It” finds a comedic (and narrative) rhythm other episodes didn’t have, with a consistent set of voices delivering jokes throughout the half-hour (Boring Larry and Carol are neck-in-neck for the head of Benched’s B-squad right now, in this guy’s book).
In fact, the only place “Sell It” really lacks – and what holds it back from being the show’s first “great” episode – is the disconnect between the emotional resonance in “Sell It” with the action that actually happens on-screen. Nina’s clients are less human beings than cardboard cutouts for plot progression, which continues a disappointing trend from the first few episodes – I don’t know about you, but I would’ve loved me some more Teensy teaching Nina that her behavior in court wasn’t really all about her, but about him, and how she portrayed him to a jury, rather than hersel. It’s natural inclination for comedies to have a selfish focus on its main characters, but in this specific case, the lack of characters involved with Nina’s self-centered approach to being a trial lawyer undercuts the distinction between corporate lawyer and public defender (which also acts as metaphor for her emotional transformation): it’s the connection to people and humanity that separates her former self and new self, and it feels “Sell It” gets caught up in the easier story – look, Nina looks silly in front of jurys! – rather than digging into the more meaningful and emotionally-rewarding story it set itself up for (though more difficult: it would have to characterize Teensy and dig a bit deeper into Nina the lawyer, which is hard to do in 22 minutes). Regardless, it’s another strong, hilariously off-color episode of the fall’s most promising new comedy – what more can you ask from a show that’s a month old?
Photo via USA Network