'Ben and Kate': The Irk of Quirk

What irked us so much about Ben and Kate wasn't so much Ben and Kate as a standalone show, per se, but rather the bigger whole that it represents. Meaning, boy oh boy are we getting sick of these single-camera comedies about quirky people doin' quirky things.

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Last night marked the return of Fox's Tuesday night comedy bloc (minus Raising Hope), which involved two new episodes of The New Girl and the premieres of Mindy Kaling's buzzed-about The Mindy Project and the family comedy (in that it's a comedy about a family, not that it's for kids) Ben and Kate. We've already worried aloud about The Mindy Project, and there's not much more to be said about The New Girl except that it's still an oddly charming mess, so let's focus on this Ben and Kate show, which arrives with only a fraction of Mindy's buzz but certainly some critical praise, and is objectively not a bad show, but oh man did we dislike it anyway.

Well, here's the thing. What irked us so much about Ben and Kate wasn't so much Ben and Kate as a standalone show, per se, but rather the bigger whole that it represents. Meaning, boy oh boy are we getting sick of these single-camera comedies about quirky people doin' quirky things and then there's a sweet little grace note at the end that wraps everything up with some softly plinking guitar music. You know the genre. It began with My Name Is Earl maybe, or perhaps even Malcolm In the Middle. But as those were early examples of the form, they had a bit more edge and originality to them. That has since softened into shows like Ben and Kate and Raising Hope and Happy Endings and yes even New Girl, which all traffic in a kind of screwball comedy that seems forced more often than it does inspired. Which isn't to say that the shows aren't funny, they are all frequently funny, but there's a lot more n each episode that doesn't work, comedically. And then on top of that mixed bag we get a dash of quirky, homey sentimentality that makes the whole thing sticky like a soda spill. This is congealing into a specific television genre and we'd like it to stop.

Ben and Kate concerns a slightly neurotic, harried young single mom (Dakota Johnson, daughter of Don and Melanie Griffith) who basically has two children in her life: her sunshiny, smart little daughter Maddie (We Bought a Zoo's cherubic Maggie Elizabeth Jones) and her lovable screwup brother Ben, played with a lot of wacky business by Nat Faxon, one of the Academy Award-winning writers of The Descendants. Ben means well and everything but he's a slacker dope who bumbles into things a lot, leaving genial destruction in his wake that Kate seems to lovingly clean up. Or something. We've seen variations of this relationship a million times. There's always a slacker brother or a messed up sister or whatever. Then they teach the uptight one how to live a freer life and they bond with the kid and it's one big happy squishy idiosyncratic craaaazy family that we can't wait to get to know even better week after week.

That is essentially the plot of the Ben and Kate pilot, vague as it is. The particular what-happened of the story doesn't really matter, because the whole show is smeared with a coat of easy-going pleasantness that seems determined to ensure that no one thing sticks out. This is what this new genre is like — we are never to be rustled or rattled or anything by episode's end, even though we are asked to laugh at mildly ribald sex jokes and random bits of verbal gymnastics throughout. These shows are resolute non-offenders and are slavishly devoted to the funny-sweet tying up of loose ends at the close of every episode. This is fine in theory, and works well for one show or two, but there is such a glut of these programs now — all filmed with a glowing, colorful warmth that's more drab and off-putting than any crime show's distressed palette — that when all amassed together a pretty irksome TV Voltron is formed. We need to start developing different shows in other micro-genres, people. This one is full up.

Maybe this is just us being greedy about something like Louie, which takes the acrid black humor of a show like It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia and fuses it with the feeling and emotion of some of these series (though a more complex version of feeling and emotion) and creates something wholly new and breathtaking from the mixture. All TV can't and probably shouldn't be like Louie, but at the very least that show's risk-taking should be an inspiration. The single-camera sitcom has become the preferred television comedy medium, so simply making one isn't risky anymore. Especially when so many of them have such similar tones. It's unfortunate that a show like Ben and Kate, which again is perfectly decent on its own merits, in a vacuum, has to be the impetus for this discussion, but it had to happen someday. The format needs shaking up, not doubling down on all this good-hearted gloss.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.