Four shows—Ben and Kate, Up All Night, The Middle, and Raising Hope—are proving that sincerity doesn't always lead to schmaltz.
Television comedy has gotten really mean in recent years. 30 Rock, The Office, Community, Happy Endings, 2 Broke Girls, It's Always Sunny, Whitney, Apartment 23, Workaholics, Family Guy, Veep, Girls, Two and a Half Men, Mike and Molly, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Weeds...the list goes on and on of shows that, though (mostly) very funny and well-written, rely on bitterness, cynicism, insults, biting one-liners, sarcasm, irony, embarrassment, and exploitation for laughs. There's the cringe comedy of The Office and the cruel comedy of Two and a Half Men. Krysten Ritter's Chloe on Don't Trust the B**** in Apt. 23 is a putdown-wielding sociopath, while Tina Fey's Liz Lemon on 30 Rock is a master practitioner of humor by humiliation. Yes, comedy has gotten deliciously good. But too often, it also leaves a bad taste in the mouth.
That's why one recent trend in comedy is so refreshing. "Family sitcom" used to be the most terrifying of labels, referring to series like According to Jim or Yes, Dear that were lazy, clichéd, and, for the most part, unfunny. But with the rise of series both about and for families like Raising Hope, The Middle, Up All Night, and, now, Ben and Kate (which premiered Tuesday night on Fox), that's no longer the case. There's no need anymore for a schlubby husband and a hot wife trading barbs, or a dénouement involving moralizing monologues and twinkly music for a show to be a "family sitcom." This new breed is smart, cleverly written, charming, full of heart, and not just watchable, but worth watching.
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On Ben and Kate, Nate Faxon (an Oscar-winner for his The Descendants script) and Dakota Johnson (the beautiful progeny of Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith) are siblings whose only weapons against a rough childhood were each other. Now grown, Ben is one of those hapless brothers who tornados in and out of Kate's life, leaving plenty of debris in his wake. Kate is a devoted sibling storm chaser who loves Ben unconditionally, so much so that she wishes, despite his continually unspooling string of bad ideas, he'd stick around permanently.
Ben is zany as any Community goofball, and Kate is as susceptible to exasperated tantrums as Liz Lemon is on 30 Rock, but there's a sweetness to their relationship that's missing on those other shows. Ben does decide to stay with Kate to help raise her precocious daughter Maddie, setting up the kind of precarious family dynamic--unreliable brother, older-than-her-years sister, impressionable little girl--that inevitably leads to a slew of sitcom-y hijinks. (Kate and Maddie try to help Ben stop his ex-girlfriend's wedding; Ben threatens to unleash his "year and a half, plus for years on and off" of krav maga training on Kate's philandering boyfriend; Maddie pops up now and again to make hearts melt.) But the balance of sentiment with that humor raises Ben and Kate to the level where, as Alyssa Rosenberg says in her Atlantic review, it "appears to be the fall's best, most confident new comedy."