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Fall 2014 Review: Benched

29 Oct


Benched is a a new comedy on USA starring Happy Endings’s Eliza Coupe.  While half-hour comedies are a fairly new beast for USA (Benched is only the third ever, the first two (Sirens and Playing House) having come earlier this year), some of their hour long shows were more or less comedies (Psych and Monk) and most others were lighter in sensibility than dramas on other networks.

Benched additionally follows a popular USA trope; the redemption story. The protagonists of Royal Pains, Fairly Legal, and Satisfaction have their happy, successful, and together lives shaken up by personal and career changes, and need to start over. They’re forced to trod over ground they’d never even thought about months before, but they end up better off in the long run for the change of path.

Coupe stars as career-oriented corporate lawyer Nina Whitley. Whitley’s personal life is in turmoil. Her boyfriend broke up with her because she worked too many hours at her firm, and she comes apart after he calls her to let her know he’s engaged. Her one saving grace is her expected promotion to partner, but when another lawyer gets chosen over her she has an Enlightened-styled meltdown, throwing things, yelling at colleagues, name-calling, and basically burning any bridge she has, not just in the firm, but in the world of corporate law.

Six months later, after recouping (pun half indended), Whitley is working at the only place that will take her; the public defender’s office, which is worlds away from the fancy lobbies and perks of her corporate office. Even while realizing it’s a step down, she’s wholly unprepared for the culture change. She plans on working for as short a time as it takes to rehabilitate her image and has a hard time fitting in among the lifers that are doing this work for other reasons. She’s intimidated when she’s thrown into court with five minutes notice, harassed by a sarcastic judge, and the coup de grace to her terrible first day is when she finds out she’ll be up against Trent, a smooth talking, handsome, and ambitious prosecutor who happens to be her ex.

The supporting cast includes her fiancé, her new boss, and some new colleagues, including a has-been not much older than her who has seemingly given up on recapturing his former legal glory, but whom it seems like might be reinspired by Whitley’s entrance into the office.

Coupe is a pro; I greatly enjoyed her work in Happy Endings, and while she plays a fairly similar character here – high-strung, career-oriented, and ruthlessly competent, she does it well, and is the best thing the show has going for it. The show is pleasant, well-meaning and slightly above average, but, at least in the first episode nothing much more. You know these characters, and how this show goes, and the first episode reads like any other USA show. Whitley is humbled, struggles mightly in her new environment, but in the nick of time, gets just one little win, that, while not incredibly meaningful in and of itself, gives her the belief that she can remake her life, that she can regain confidence and be good again at what she once took for granted.

Another quick comparison, as mentioned quickly above is Enlightened, another show about a high-strung female corporate climber, who comes apart and has to put her life back together again. Benched is more comedic and far more conventional than Enlightened, but it trods over the same difficulties in much broad strokes of trying to reorient your whole life after what you’ve been working for for years comes apart in an instant.

Will I watch it again? Probably not. It’s cute; there’s nothing not to like, but there isn’t enough to like either. There are so many shows on TV, now, and to catch up on, and there’s not enough to make Benched stand out amongst the pack.