The biggest reason to watch USA’s Benched is to observe Eliza Coupe at work. She previously showcased her acting chops on the fondly missed Happy Endings by routinely commanding attention and standing out among an impressive ensemble cast — and now, on Benched, all eyes are focused on her. Coupe spits out one-liners with ease and effortlessly slips into the rapid-fire, circular jargon that’s required of all lawyer shows. She plays both the unhinged corporate lawyer in the midst of a breakdown and the exhausted, out-of-her-element public defender trying to figure her life out.
Within one episode, Coupe can play the charming, irresistible love interest and the childish, obnoxious lawyer who celebrates a win with a undignified “Booyakasha!” in the middle of court. She also, in the pilot’s best moments, accidentally ends up straddling a court gate in a miniskirt, trying to gracefully untangle herself and maintain her composure while wobbling toward the judge. Benched gives Couple plenty of opportunities to go for broad physical humor, and the show is much better for it.
Benched is USA’s third attempt at scripted comedy this year (Sirens was renewed for Season 2, but the network has remained quiet on Playing House), and it might end up being the strongest. It doesn’t sound like much: Coupe’s Nina Whitley has an angry, vase-breaking meltdown at her corporate job when she’s passed over for a promotion that results in her being demoted to working in a public defender’s office. It’s a fish-out-of-water sitcom with some class issues thrown in — Nina thinks she is better than this job, is disgusted with her new, smaller apartment, sometimes schemes to get back to her regular life, and doesn’t know how to relate to (or even talk to) her new (mostly urban) clients — but it’s surprisingly funny for such a trite premise (and for its network).
Created by Michaela Watkins (Saturday Night Live and Trophy Wife) and Damon Jones, Benched is more of an NBC or Fox sitcom, but it somehow landed on USA (I suspect the network was wooed by the legal connection). Much like Coupe’s wobbling depiction of Nina, Benched can be unsteady on its feet, particularly when it tries to depict the socioeconomic issues at play but does so lazily: Nina can’t connect with her clients; Nina just wants to go to the spa! Still, the basic building blocks for a great sitcom are all there, and even after only three episodes, it’s clear the writers know what they’re doing.
Court scenes aside, Benched is more of a workplace comedy than a legal one. Rounding out the Public Defender’s office is the equally charming Phil (Jay Harrington from Better Off Ted, another brilliant comedy that ended too soon), who pretends to care a lot less than he actually does; Carlos (Oscar Nunez, The Office), who is the closest the office has to an idealist — he clashes with Nina when she steals one of his opportunities to do better in order to selfishly promote herself; weirdo Cheryl (Maria Bamford, occasionally bringing her trademark funny faces and voices to the character), who is around for runners more than anyone else, but it works; and Micah (Jolene Purdy), an under-appreciated intern.
All of the characters work well together — Coupe and Harrington especially have chemistry from the get go — and it’s easy to see that Benched isn’t just about Nina but is trying to create a well-rounded ensemble with characters who, as the season goes on, will all become more developed and get their own storylines.
Benched is one of those rare comedies where everything seems to click immediately, even when the premise and characters have been done before. Its surprisingly smooth execution and the acting make up for the handful of iffy exchanges (and dated references) that litter the script. Coupe is fully committed here — the third episode has her stuck in jail for the night, and much of the series finds laughs in gross body humor involving her character — and sells everything that she’s given.
If there is one major strike against Benched, it’s its network. USA doesn’t seem to know what it wants to do lately, or whether it even wants to continue with comedy. Hopefully, it will recognize that Benched is not only already a strong sitcom, but that it could very well become the strongest show the network has.