Eliza Coupe has an uncannily innate ability to seem like the most composed and least poised person at the same time on screen. It is a trait that Happy Endings used well, even if it didn’t fully embrace it until the final season, when it delved into Jane’s increasingly slapstick job with the Car Czar. When dealing with the messiness of Brad or Alex’s tomfoolery, Coupe’s Jane Kerkovich-Williams was the only one keeping everything together, yet when she was unable to live up to her own standards of perfection, she fell apart before you could squeak out a trademark Kerkovich “What?”
Benched, the new half-hour comedy on the USA Network, harnesses this quality well. Centering on the career obliteration of “money law” HBIC Nina Whitely (Coupe), following a public breakdown stemming from being passed over for a promotion, the show embraces the less than glamour-filled world of public defenders without fully sacrificing heart for wackiness. It is so well suited to Eliza Coupe’s talents, in fact, that the only way the show could be more formed around her specific comedic combination of painfully awkward embarrassment, pratfalls, and robotic perfection is if it was titled The Eliza Coupe Show, in the vein of Roseanne or Mary Tyler Moore. Her endless energy, and the gusto with which she attacks every scene, are the main reasons everyone should be watching this weekly delivery system of laugh-a-minute sitcom fun.
This is a sitcom that doesn’t pull punches. It is straightforward in its intentions, and follows through on sometimes-obvious plans with confidence. Knowing a gag is coming never takes away from the humor of a resolution; in fact, seeing the show set something up so plainly and still effortlessly pull it off in Act 3 makes it that much more enjoyable. Benched sets up its central premise in the first episode quickly enough, proves it means to stick with it in the second episode, and moves on from there without looking back. It mostly avoids the new show curse of repeating everything from the pilot in the second installment, interspersing relevant details throughout as callback jokes, rather than redundant exposition.
If there are doubts about the show’s merits outside of Coupe’s significant magnetism, leave them in the dust. Boosted by strong writing from Michaela Watkins (who has appeared onscreen in Trophy Wife and Enlightened) and Lindsey Shockley (Ben and Kate, Hello Ladies), the snappy dialogue packs withering distaste for the public sector in the same breath as encouragement or positivity for the job’s plus sides. As many laughs are wrung from the physical absurdity of Nina straddling a courtroom gate in a skirt as from her having yet another public collapse in a statuesque evening gown. The ensemble cast shines as well, bolstered by characterizations that don’t fall victim to broad stokes in their nascent forms. Each supporting player works well together, as if they really have been coworkers for years in a low paying job. Phil (Jay Harrington) counts on a liquid lunch to get him through the day, Cheryl (Maria Bamford) is loopy and all over the place but not wholly incompetent, and intern Micah (Jolene Purdy) is as quick to give a solid side-eye as she is to solve a problem in court. It probably isn’t a coincidence that Oscar Nunez, of The Office fame, is one of the most clearly defined employees in this thankless, low-paying job, as Benched shares the same early world building strengths as that classic.
This isn’t to say Benched is guaranteed to blossom into the next great sitcom of the century, of course. It has a lot of growing to do, and it is still unclear how it will handle itself beyond these first few episodes. The true test is whether the storytelling will get lazy and embrace a more predictable case of the week format before too long, as opposed to the particulars of inter-office relationships and how a corporate lawyer navigates a decidedly non-corporate world. With such a hot start, it is hard to believe the series will falter irreparably, but just to be safe, start watching sooner rather than later, so as to not miss a single brilliant moment from Coupe and Co.