Nat Faxon, as Ben, and Dakota Johnson, as Kate, in a scene from "Ben… (Jennifer Clasen, Fox )
"Ben and Kate" is a sweet, smart new show from Fox that may turn out to be the best new comedy of the fall season. Certainly, it is the most original, combining silly, often physical humor with the more sensitive homespun sort while also showcasing one of the most fascinating yet under-used relationships on TV: a brother and sister.
Kate Fox (Dakota Johnson) is a twentysomething single mom, which means she'll be handling the voiceover. A bar manager, she's trying to create some stability for her 5-year-old daughter Maddie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) while launching, finally, an adult version of the dating life.
Both stability and dating are threatened by the reappearance of her scapegrace older brother Ben (Nat Faxon), a classic man-boy who can't seem to enter a room without knocking something down, literally and figuratively. It's not the newest model on the planet — when in doubt, go with the odd couple — but the heart and nuance that writer Dana Fox (yes, the characters are modeled on her and her brother Ben) brings to the story make "Ben and Kate" a potential game-changer: It is a near-perfect hybrid of the family and alternative family comedy sub-genres.
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In a bittersweet flashback, we see the leads as children, left alone at a dinner table while their parents scream in the background. The image not only paints that infamous 1,000 words of back story with one rueful glance, it evokes, with heartbreaking precision, the durable if off-kilter bond that so often occurs between the children of a dysfunctional marriage.
Not that "Ben and Kate," premiering Tuesday night, is a morose comedy; brightly lighted and filled out with a terrific ensemble, it is survival at its sunniest. Kate may be the steady one, but Johnson makes her just the right amount of vulnerable and immature — Kate surrendered five important formative years to motherhood and she really does have some catching up to do.
Aiding her in this is her glammed up, if rather low-rent best friend BJ ("Doc Martin's" wonderful Lucy Punch), who gets to do things like show Kate how to seductively eat a pretzel and give a 5-year-old a makeover. ("I'm going to use some blush because you have no cheekbones," she says.) Faxon, fresh off his screenplay Oscar for "The Descendants," makes Ben a big golden retriever of a guy, bounding this way and that with half-baked schemes and a toned-down but still Will Ferrell-esque mania.
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He is back in town after receiving a "please call me" message from his former girlfriend, and everything that can go wrong with his plan to win her back does (including one of the funniest three-point-turns ever caught on film). His best friend Tommy (Echo Kellum) is his geeky wing-man, in a state of perpetual admiration for Ben and adoration of Kate.
In the midst of the gentle mayhem is Maddie, who, while fairly sophisticated for a 5-year-old, is mercifully not one of those eye-rolling kids with a writer-inflicted maturity that amounts to child abuse. Jones, who shone so brightly in "We Bought a Zoo," is just as refreshing here, capable (at the ripe old age of 7) of grounding her adorableness in a recognizable version of reality.
Fox (as in Dana, the writer) does not, as so many writers of these sorts of shows do, make Maddie the adult of the family. Instead, each character is allowed to have a personality rather than a position to fill, granted instinct if not clear understanding, hard-won wisdom if not actual knowledge.
Most comedies are about people trying to fit all their broken edges into something like a functional whole. Family shows play up the cracks but rely on the bonds; alternative family shows play up the bonds but rely on the cracks. In either case, it's a case of group parenting.
"Ben and Kate" is both, two broken adults who are also brother and sister trying to fill in the gaps and have some fun along the way. Lucky us, we get to go along for the ride too.