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‘Benched’ Ready to Take the Stand

| Thursday, November 20, 2014

benched-webSusan Zhu | The Observer
For all the characters USA Network welcomes with open arms, a fair amount reside in the context of the law. Whether representing it, working in tandem with it, consulting for it or actively escaping it, almost every popular original USA Network hour-long drama pertains in some aspect to law, crime and justice. As such, it is natural that USA’s new show expanding its foray into half-hour sitcom programming, “Benched” — following the network taking a chance with the great comedy writing duo of Lennon Parham and Jessica St. Clair in their second show in as many years, the summer sitcom “Playing House” — centers on a lawyer in a public defense office bullpen. The premise is well-worn territory, both for the network and for sitcoms as a genre, and while it might not be groundbreaking, it provides a familiar foundation on which to grow an audience.

“Benched” tracks a hardworking, dedicated corporate attorney’s fall from grace following an outburst caused by losing out on a promotion. Nina Whitley (Eliza Coupe) is forced to work up goodwill representing the less fortunate in a public law position. After she burns her bridges with the high standing firms she was once a member of, she hopes her time away will someday return her to the private sector.

Created by Damon Jones and Michaela Watkins, the basis for the main story sounds extremely similar to another show Watkins acted on, HBO’s now-cancelled “Enlightened.” However, Coupe’s confident, broader Whitley makes “Benched” a straight comedy whereas the wonderful “Enlightened” often played cripplingly serious. As a result, “Benched” is much more analogous to the show in which Coupe got her television start, “Scrubs.” Although it does not share the breakneck zaniness of the latter, “Benched” similarly explores a setting normally relegated to dramas in a surprisingly accurate representation.

Coupe has been on the cusp of TV stardom since her prominent part in the final two seasons of “Scrubs,” nearly adopting the show’s leading role. Since, she has starred in the excellent “Happy Endings,” in a similar Type-A role she inhabits in “Benched.” As superb as “Happy Endings” was, “Benched” could very well prove to be her breakout, offering a strong, central character as the show’s main focal point, with room for her to establish multi-dimensionality in Whitley. In its first few episodes, the show has already introduced a large playground to explore: from her new public office — equipped with such dynamic colleagues as Jay Harrington (“Better Off Ted”), Oscar Nunez (“The Office”) and Maria Bamford (“Arrested Development”) — to the courtroom, interrogation rooms, prison and the possibility of returning to a private firm. As of now, it does not seem as though the show will take a path towards really exploring the latter, but, knowing USA shows, it could provide a nice on-going conflict.

Still, the most promising element to “Benched” is the confidence it shares with its main character. Already Nina has spent a night in jail alongside a woman she was representing, got into a physical fight and then bonded with the woman over mutual complaints about their sex lives. In the context of the show, that last bit it is an important development in the show’s infancy, and one for television on the whole. The show’s main female character embraces an empowered, confident sexual role, in an unexpected way — which is no small feat, even if it may have been a slight moment played for laughs. Patriarchal culture, especially often displayed on television — overtly or not — can pick up from an honest and hilarious open exchange like the one written on “Benched.”

This small moment, among others, provides a lot of hope for “Benched” as a series. The show could become the first in an eventual sitcom block for USA, which could spark the network to explore more premises its dramas’ inhabit or take more experimental chances by branching out into new territory, treating it with similar quality.

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About Matt McMahon

Notre Dame Class of 2016 student studying Finance and English. From Mercer County, New Jersey. Interests include music, television, film, and writing. Also food.My Mom didn't like what else I had to say here so I took it down.

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