There’s nothing more fun to watch than a young comedy finding its stride; Benched‘s recent episodes have been exactly that, a crescendo of character and story that finds new peaks in both “A New Development” and “Solitary Refinement” – the latter of which further benefits from the appearance of Nat Faxon, Molly Shannon, AND Jim Rash in the same episode. Two half-hours that throw wrenches into typical sitcom stories about antagonists and romance (respectively), “A New Development” and “Solitary Refinement” are both terrific episodes in their own right.
Besides being a Maria Bamford showcase, “A New Development” is Benched letting Trent have some cake; the reveal in the final minutes that he orchestrated everything in the episode to make sure a new homeless shelter was built downtown is a hilarious twist, and also reveals a possible story line for Benched‘s second season (c’mon USA!): Trent running for mayor, putting those slimy tactics and washboard abs on display for all the city to see. This episode furthers the yin and yang of his character, firmly establishing why everyone on Earth would be so attracted to the man, but also giving real voice to some of Nina’s fundamental problems with him.
By the same token, “A New Development” is also a real triumphant underdog story, not some vague accomplishment for the homeless that exists to further the duality of a supporting character (though that is awesome). I’m talking about the Maria Bamford Showcase plot, where Nina tries to help kind, dim Cheryl save her job in the face of public (and professional) scrutiny. It’s the trick that makes the episode click into place; both sides get to win, and Benched is able to make Cheryl’s hollow victory in court mean something, both for a minor character and a major one (Nina, who bonds with a female in the office, and gets to see the cathartic part of being a public defender) – while letting the “bad” guy win at the same time.
It’s a genius stroke; and the only thing that could top it would be “Solitary Refinement”, an episode with not one, but two trope-laden sitcom stories – and a half-hour that knocks both out of the park with subtle moments and a convincing delivery of the “two co-workers realize they’re kind of into each other” narrative to the audience. Though the ultimate lesson (delivered by the Oscar-winning Nat Faxon) is relatively simplistic – date people because life is short! – it works in giving context to the journey of both Phil and Nina, two lawyers who find themselves at a crossroads with who they are. Nina’s identity in the post-Trent era is slowly forming itself, as is Phil’s attempts to develop himself into something other than a skirt chasing, gambling, walking cliche of a whiskey drinking public defender.
Both journeys have their individual opportunities to highlight both characters and performance – and for the purposes of “Solitary Refinement”, Phil’s given a bit of a back seat to focus on Nina’s loneliness and realization she might be into Phil. For him, it feels like more of a plot convenience than an emotional progression at first, until the moment his first bump turns into a hug; “Refinement” may lay it on a little too heavy with Phil’s wine box selfie, the looks in Nina and Phil’s eyes when they embrace is an exciting, kinetic moment for the show’s romantic possibilities – something I was initially hesitant about, having sat through dozens of terrible iterations on the same story; now, I’m slightly intrigued.
Plus, we get Jim Rash as a crazy man defending himself using the Lonely Nina Defense, and Carlos getting seduced by Molly Shannon (who later gets maced by Boring Larry, who knows better than to wear a certain type of tie to court); as Benched heads into its double-episode season finale next week, it couldn’t have any more comedic or narrative momentum, thanks to the wonderfully-crafted third acts of both episodes (and again, Carlos getting seduced by Judge Molly Shannon).
Photo via USA Network
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