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Welcome once again to our annual "first look" at the broadcast networks' offerings for the 2012-2013 season, now in its seventh year! Each day we'll walk you through one of the new series set to premiere next season (or one that didn't make the cut) and go over our initial impressions after viewing the pilot. Keep in mind that a lot can change from what's being screened right now - recasting, reshooting, etc. - but we still want to give you a heads up on what you should (and shouldn't) keep on your radar in the coming months. So enough of our rambling, on with the show!
[IMPORTANT NOTE: The following is based on the original sales presentation which was screened to us privately or supplied by a third party NOT an informational, not-for-review screener provided by the network in question.]
BEN & KATE (FOX)
(written by Dana Fox; directed by Jake Kasdan; TRT: 23:55)
The network's description: "What happens when an exuberant, irresponsible dreamer who always says "yes" moves in with his overly responsible little sister to help raise her five-year-old daughter? BEN AND KATE, a new single-camera young ensemble comedy, follows these odd-couple siblings as they push each other out of their comfort zones and into real life. KATE FOX (Dakota Johnson, "The Social Network") followed the rules all her life...until she got pregnant in college and dropped out just shy of graduation. After the birth of her daughter, MADDIE (Maggie Jones, "We Bought a Zoo," "Footloose"), Kate put her twenties on hold. Now working as a bar manager to make ends meet and maximize her time with five-year-old Maddie, she's uber-prepared for every possible catastrophe - except for the arrival of her older brother, BEN FOX (Nat Faxon, "Bad Teacher").
Ben likes trouble a lot more than his sister does. His infectious energy makes you want to follow him into any number of bad ideas. He'll totally screw up your life, but somehow, you'll feel good about it. Where Kate is all about planning and preparing, Ben is big on spontaneity and out-of-the-box ideas. But don't let the Velcro wallet fool you - he'll probably be a millionaire someday. When Ben comes to crash on Kate's couch for a few days, he finds a sad state of affairs. Kate's surviving, but not living. Ben realizes that for the first time in their lives, Kate needs his help and he's determined to bring some much-needed chaos into her overly stable world. He starts by offering to help look after Maddie so Kate can get back to experiencing her mid-twenties and making mistakes, since the one real "mistake" she's made turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to her.
Always there to help with Ben's crazy schemes is his partner-in-crime, TOMMY (newcomer Echo Kellum), who worships Ben like a hero and nurses a serious crush on Kate. Kate's British best friend, BJ (Lucy Punch, "Bad Teacher"), is a cocktail waitress at the bar that Kate manages and an all-around hot mess who would do anything for Kate, even if her advice is often questionable and occasionally illegal. From writer/executive producer Dana Fox (NEW GIRL, "What Happens in Vegas") and executive producer/director Jake Kasdan (NEW GIRL, "Bad Teacher"), BEN AND KATE is a heartwarming story of deeply mismatched siblings: a sister who needs to go for her dreams and a brother who needs to get his head out of the clouds."
What did they leave out? Abby Elliott was originally cast as Kate before being replaced by Dakota Johnson.
The plot in a nutshell: "My brother and I kind of raised ourselves," Kate (Dakota Johnson) explains in the opening narration. "He never grew up. I grew up too fast." Case in point: Ben (Nat Faxon) is a perennial drifter, showing up when it suits his often oddball needs (appearing at Kate's doorstep in a bloody T-shirt: "How's your Portugese?"); while Kate got pregnant with her precocious daughter - is there any other kind on TV? - Maddie (Maggie Jones) in college, forcing her to slog away as a waitress for the past five years to raise her. That all changes with the arrival of George (Jon Foster), a seemingly nice guy whom Kate finally appears ready to take their relationship to the next level.
Ben of course isn't as enthused, a feeling supported by his favorite metric: high five form. He however has his own issues: his ex-girlfriend Darcy is about to get married, forcing him and best friend Tommy (Echo Kellum) to conspire how best to crash the wedding and profess his love. Usually annoyed by his harebrained schemes, Kate can't help but lend a hand as his quest appeals to her own vulnerabilities about falling in love. Said plans however get derailed as Ben can't bear to leave Maddie with her unimaginative babysitter, a decision which has a domino effect on both Foxs. In the end, Ben and Kate realize perhaps they'd both be better off if he stuck around for good.
What works: It's easily the strongest comedy of this year's freshman class, thanks to a refreshingly no frills premise and characters that - gasp! - actually feel like real people. Credit Johnson and Faxon for infusing our heroes with an approachable charm that's almost infectious, whether it's Kate's adorably shaky confidence ("It's been awhile but I'm amazing at getting laid. Before Maddie was born I was out there crushing ass left, right and center.") or Ben's manic enthusiasm ("Stay away from my sister okay, before you find out what six years of Krav Maga feels like... well, like a year and a half plus like four years on and off, I took some time off.").
It helps that the script never pushes too far with the sweet or the silly, showing welcome restraint with prerequisite kid cuteness and isn't-that-Ben-a-cad flashbacks. Most of the unabashedly fatuous behavior comes from the show's sidekicks, as Kate's pal BJ (Lucy Punch) gives consistently horrible advice while Kellum's Tommy amusingly loves Kate from afar (Kate: "Tommy we made out like once and it was in my fat phase." Tommy: "Your hot phase.") Plus, let's be honest, there's tropes that never get old, such as Ben trying to restrain himself from swearing in front of Maddie ("There's so much I want to say! Why are you so young right now?!") or a shameless recreation of the "Austin Powers" three point turn scene.
What doesn't: A richer comedy year would make me more likely to pick at scabs but at the end of the day, given its consistent stream of jokes, likeable characters and inherent thoughtfulness...
The bottom line: ...it's still the best of the half-hour crop.