Friday, October 17, 2014

The Verdict on USA Network’s new comedy “Benched”: A Winner.

Every now and then a new comedy comes along that's just really funny.  Benched, created by Michaela Watkins and Damon Jones and starring Eliza Coupe and Jay Harrington is that comedy.


Moments after receiving a phone call from her ex-fiancée letting her know he’s getting married, hardworking, high-powered corporate attorney Nina Whitley discovers that the promotion she’d sacrificed everything for has been given to her less qualified colleague, Debbie, a “good lawyer with great breasts”. 

All hell breaks loose when Nina interrupts Debbie’s acceptance speech with an all-out tirade against the entire firm with insults that had me standing and shouting “You go girl!” as she told them off while she smashed glass and threw things including a precious vase that had been a gift from Elton John. 

The tirade ends with final words to the boss as she struts into the elevator to go to the nearest bar to get “toilet hugging drunk”.  In a final act of defiance she tells them all to “piss up a rope” as she waits for the elevator doors to close.

Only they don’t. 

Cue the elevator music and a few uncomfortable seconds that feel more like minutes. Finally, it’s Debbie who reminds her that she has to use her ID card to operate the elevator after five o’clock.  

Having swiped her card, she’s waiting impatiently for the elevator which seems to be taking forever. Not knowing what to do next Nina proceeds to explain herself but when the boss tells her she’ll never work in corporate law again she tells him off again. Finally, as the doors begin to close tells she gives them some parting words accompanied by a beautiful hand gesture. 

Only the doors don’t close. Again.
Fade to black.

It was awkward. It was cringe-worthy. It was hilarious. I couldn't help but be thrown back in time, twenty years to the moment this happened to me. Only it wasn't a law firm, it was a party. And the means of exit wasn't an elevator, it was a locked door. And the nearest available exit required me to walk through the group of people I'd just insulted, who thankfully, did allow me access as they parted like the red sea, their eyes shooting daggers into me.


Anyway...with no shot of finding a new job in corporate law, Nina ends up at the Public Defender’s office, defending the city’s most impoverished citizens.  It seems that her reputation precedes her as Sheryl, one of her new colleagues tells her that she’s a legend, “the crazy lady who smashed a vase over Elton John’s head.”  But it doesn’t end there.  Upon entering her office, she meets yet another colleague, Phil, whose initial greeting to her includes, “Is it true you went all Gary Busey and smashed a lamp in George Michael’s face?”

And that is just the beginning.

Nina is late for court and discovers her nemesis in the courtroom is none other than her ex-fiancée, Trent.  She’s pissed when Trent, the smug bastard he is, downplays their former relationship by telling the judge they used to date.  

The judge chimes in letting them both know he doesn’t give a shit. And trust me, he means it.

When she’s ready to give up, her assistant, the oh-so-witty Micah convinces her to stick around, that her clients will have no one to represent and they’ll all go back to jail. When she finally returns to her duties, Nina manages to piss off the judge and loses every attempt at bail for her clients, all while her snide ex-fiancée smirks openly at her failure.

Let me just add that in the midst of all the courtroom craziness is a very minor but hilarious subplot—the smell in the courtroom. I won't give it away but the way it is worked into the scenes is brilliant. I want to give it away and yet no, I can't. It's so unexpected and hilariously funny you have to experience it for yourself!

During a break between cases, Trent approaches Nina about what he’d revealed to her over the phone, insisting he’d just wanted to “do the right thing” but then tells her that he wouldn’t have done it if he'd known it would cause her to "bash Michael Bolton with a bowl.”

Score! I love the writers already. Because there's nothing more beautiful than taking an event that happened and turning it into a great running joke. Again, something similar happened to me in real life. One minor incident has, twenty years later, turned into the stuff of legend. At this point, I stopped disputing it and just take the accolades and pats on the back. I mean, the legend built itself, who am I to dispute it?

Alas, this gag is great and I hope it continues. I'm interested to know how far the writers can take it and what crazy legend will come of it.

The antics get better as Nina's day gets worse.  She can't find her next client and asks the bailiff to find her. Clearly, Nina's hothead reputation precedes her and when he refuses to help, Nina takes matters into her own hands. The result of words can do this scene justice.  But it involves a miniskirt and heels and an attempt to climb over a half-high door, all while trying not to flash everyone in the courtroom. As I watched, I knew that it was not going to go well for her. Something has to go wrong, I thought. And it does. And it's perfect. The scene is just brilliant and Eliza Coupe makes you think she does this sort of thing every day. The way she played this scene the timing is perfect. 

The character of Phil Quinlan is going to be a treasure, I can already feel it. Sitting in the courtroom, Phil harasses Nina about having dated Trent, wondering what she could’ve possibly seen in him. He's so obnoxious in his pushing her. It's obvious he can’t stand Trent and wants Nina to knock him down a peg or two. You have to wonder why he doesn't do it himself till Micah steps in and tells Nina why Phil hates Trent so much. The two-line exchange between Micah and Phil is so perfect, it leaves you wanting more snark between them. 

Phil finally succeeds in annoying Nina into going after Phil and boy does she! She gathers together all of the great talents within her that make her such a great lawyer and she puts them to use.  Of course while she’s doing it she’s pissing off the judge and bordering on contempt and the possibility of being fired but in the end, she gets the job done and done well and Trent is clearly rattled by it. Phil of course, sits by living vicariously through her victory.

In the end, Nina Whitley has clearly had a crappy day, or rather a crappy life as of late. She needed that victory in the courtroom, just a little something to remind her she's still in "the game".  Later on, in the final scene of the pilot, she walks away in her second victory, having subtly gained the upper hand she so desperately needed in order to regain a bit of her dignity and self-confidence. And you get the feeling that though there’s more crap coming her way, Nina is going to be okay.

Nina Whitley is a woman who has lost things very important to her and forced to start over, she finds the experience humiliating and frustrating. She is a fish out of water, working in a place she doesn't belong with people she has nothing in common with. Or so she thinks. By the end of the first episode, she's regained some of her confidence and it's obvious the brief experiences she’s had and the people she's met have had an effect on her. Her troubles are by no means over, but you're sucked in now and you can't help but wonder what will happen next.

Eliza Coupe plays Nina to perfection and the character is so endearing and likeable that you can't help but root for her. She's not just another pretty face either, what you see in Nina is a smart, sassy and witty woman. She got where she is because of her brains, not her looks. You also see her vulnerability and humanity and despite her years in the shark tank of corporate law, she's still got heart and she still cares.  Nina Whitley is so perfectly imperfect and wonderfully flawed and just a little bit crazy.

But aren't we all?

While Eliza Coupe rocks the role of Nina, let's not forget the terrific supporting cast. Jay Harrington’s Phil grows on you from the start. He's charming, endearing and funny. He’s one of the good guys who was once at the top but because of a few bad experiences, finds himself at the bottom, now living vicariously through the victories of others. Then there’s Jolene Purdy’s Micah, a sassy, tell-it-like-it-is second-year law student and intern who doesn't put up with Nina's self-pity and will no doubt will be the one to help keep her focused. Carter Macintyre's Trent is convincing as the witty, ambitious, manipulative ex-fiancee willing to do anything to get to the top. Maria Bamford is great as Sheryl, the clueless, absent-minded, yet endearing lawyer who keeps everyone laughing. Finally, there's the immensely talented Fred Melamed as Judge Nelson, a no-nonsense smartass judge who kills it in all his scenes. I hope he returns for more because he’s just great.  

I'm a very picky television viewer and I liked the pilot episode a lot. I found it to be innovative, smart and just plain funny. Watching Nina endure one mishap and embarrassing moment after another, reminded me of my own life, which on some days, is like a comedy of errors.  

Benched is a show that encourages us to loosen up a little, laugh at ourselves and make light of the shit that happens to us every single day. And let's face it, laughter is the best distraction from the stark reality that constantly surrounds us.

Michaela Watkins (SNL, Trophy Wife) and Damon Jones (Halfway Home) serve as executive producers and writers. John Enbom (Party Down) is executive producer/showrunner. Andrea Shay (Family Tools, It Takes A Village) and Mark Gordon (Grey’s Anatomy, Criminal Minds)  serve as executive producers for The Mark Gordon Company.

Benched premieres on October 28th at 10:30 p.m. on USA Network but you can click here to watch the pilot online now! Go! You do not want to miss this!

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Like it or not, the US must implement travel restrictions to prevent the spread of Ebola.

After reading comments by White House spokesman Josh Earnest and CDC Director Tom Frieden about the uselessness of taking preventive measures in the form of banning or restricting travel from Ebola-stricken nations, and that we should instead work to contain it if it arrives here, I had to say something.

When asked under what conditions President Obama would implement a travel ban, Earnest responded, “We are confident that the sophisticated medical infrastructure that exists here in the United States can prevent the wide spread of Ebola.” Asked a similar question, Frieden responded, "I wish we could get to zero risk by sealing off the border. But we can’t. The only way we are going to get to zero risk in this country is by controlling it in Africa. Until that happens, Americans may come back with Ebola. Other people who have a right to return or a visa to enter may come back. People will go to third countries and come from there. Sealing them off—first off won’t work. Second off, it will backfire. Because if we can’t get help in there, then we’re not going to be able to stop the outbreak and ultimately we will end up at higher risk, not lower risk.”

So, that’s it. Rather than try to do everything we can to prevent the disease from reaching our borders, we’re just going to take a “sit and wait” approach. While it may be true that an individual may opt to enter the US through a third party country, it’s still not a valid reason to not implement these measures. And while it may be true that zero risk can be obtained from controlling Ebola in Africa, it’s hubris to think that not one single infected person could make it into the United States. It happened once. It can happen again.

Frieden speaks of rights but with rights come responsibilities. Every person entering the United States has a responsibility not to bring with them a serious infectious disease and if they do, then the government has a responsibility to quarantine that individual and take every precaution to ensure they do not transmit that disease to others. The government also has the responsibility to deny entry to any individual who comes from a nation where a serious infectious disease is widespread if they believe that person could endanger the health and safety of Americans.

There is no cure for Ebola, there is only treatment. The difference between treatment in Africa and the U.S. is that in Africa there aren’t enough hospitals, beds or medical personnel to handle the cases. They also do not have access to the experimental treatment. The natives in infected countries are not educated in the proper ways of handling the sick and the dead. In the U.S., patients are isolated, receive specialized care and hydration and are given an experimental vaccine, one that has not been thoroughly tested. And just because one receives treatment in the U.S., it doesn’t mean that treatment is 100 percent effective. In fact, it’s not. People treated here can still die from the virus.

Because we can’t trust people not to lie on questionnaires and because not everyone may have a fever when attempting to enter the U.S., we have to take all preventive measures available. Travel restrictions make sense. Preventing entry by individuals from Ebola-stricken nations into the U.S. would be a wise first step. The U.S. would not be the first nation to do this. SOS International maintains a list of travel bans and restrictions of other nations, most of them in Africa.

Americans are wondering why this has not yet happened here. The response from government officials is that it would make things worse, that travel restrictions would hinder the ability of medical and military personnel to travel between the U.S. and Ebola-stricken nations. If that’s the case, officials should create a process that addresses the issue.

Here’s an idea: the U.S. could set up CDC-staffed quarantine facilities for its citizens and other authorized persons. It may require that they remain in quarantine for the duration of the 21-day incubation period before traveling to the U.S. It’s cumbersome, but isn’t it worth it if it saves lives? And if the governments of Ebola-stricken countries object to the quarantine stations, we simply tell them we won’t send personnel to assist them until they agree to it.

There’s been criticism in regard to the suggestion of travel restrictions. American scientist and Ebola expert David Quammen told Anderson Cooper that the U.S. cannot ban entry from Ebola-stricken nations because of slavery. He said, “I mean, we in America, how dare we turn our backs on Liberia given the fact that this is a country that was founded in the 1820s, 1830s because of American slavery. We have a responsibility to stay connected to them and help them see this through.”

Nobody is suggesting we turn our backs on Liberia or any country dealing with this crisis. However, while we help them, we have a responsibility to take every precaution to ensure the virus does not spread to the U.S. Our government must not allow itself to be guilted into not taking aggressive action because of its past history of slavery.

While the chances of being infected with Ebola are slim, it is possible. A Q&A on Ebola which was published by The New York Times made a bold statement that a person cannot contract Ebola via public transportation, saying a person with Ebola is “really, really sick” and “seeking hospital care.”
It went on to say that it is unlikely that an infected person is riding the bus or going to work.
That’s wishful thinking. The early stages of Ebola include flu-like symptoms. Sick people, even those with the flu, ride the bus; go to work and school and the grocery store, every single day. All it takes is the right contact during the symptoms stage to transmit the virus. A person who’s not traveled to infected areas of the world would have no reason to believe they’ve contracted anything more than the flu—until it’s too late.  By that time, how many others would they have been in contact with?

The CDC itself has stated that while Ebola cannot be spread through the air by coughing or sneezing, it can be spread if infected sweat, mucus or saliva is left on some surfaces. The Washington Post reported via the CDC that that the virus can live for several hours in dried bodily fluids and that there’s the possibility it can spread by handshake if mucus or saliva is present on an infected person’s hand.

Government officials insisted early on that it was unlikely Ebola would make its way here and yet it did.  Thomas Duncan was infected with the virus though he exhibited no symptoms. He lied on a questionnaire and entered the U.S. and is now in a Dallas hospital in critical condition. The people he was living with are in quarantine and the government is tracking down every individual who had contact with him.

Ebola is in America and while there’s no reason to panic, there is cause for concern, especially considering the White House and the CDC, the agency responsible for protecting Americans from health threats, refuse to take certain preventive measures as part of a broader plan to fight this deadly virus. This is unacceptable. The American people expect their government to do everything within its power to ensure the safety and security of this nation. We can’t predict with any certainty that another infected person will not enter this country. We can’t predict that if an infected person does enter this country, that the virus will not spread. And we can’t predict that if it does spread, those infected can be successfully treated.