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!


  1. Anonymous10/17/2014

    Sounds like a great show.

  2. Great review. I watched the episode online and it was hilarious! Looking forward to this series.

  3. I laughed so hard watching it and then reading this I laughed again remembering it all. Eliza is perfect as Nina! Jay Harrington is so funny. Actually everyone is on their game.

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