The idea of one sibling with their life together and another who just can't seem to grow up has been visited time and time again in both film and television. But somehow, the new Fox comedy series Ben and Kate - starring Nat Faxon (Bad Teacher and co-writer of The Descendants) and Dakota Johnson (21 Jump Street, The Social Network) as the titular brother and sister - brings a fresh approach with a lot of charm and scene-stealing supporting characters.
Ben Fox is the manchild who never quite learned how to take on responsibility, while Kate Fox is the woman who grew up too fast (complete with a seemingly unexpected pregnancy) leaving her with a precocious and adorable 5-year old daughter, Maddie (We Bought a Zoo star Maggie Elizabeth Jones). And while Kate is seemingly always on the verge of forcing Ben to grow up, it's her brother's undying love and big heart that keeps her defending him.
In the pilot, Kate is doing her best to keep a handsome guy on the line while Ben keeps showing up at the wrong moments with drum sets and off-the-wall ideas. Sometimes this dynamic is a little too on the nose. For example, when Ben reveals his plan to sabotage the wedding of his high school crush, whom he's always referred to as "Mrs. Ben Fox," Kate responds with the eye-rolling line "I'm not going to take part in another one of your hair-brained schemes!" If a laughtrack would have been on during this moment, this show might not deserve another chance.
Thankfully, the rest ofBen and Kate avoids too many of those generic moments. Helping the humor are Lucy Punch (Bad Teacher) as Kate's best friend BJ, and Echo Kellum in a hilarious role as Ben's friend Tommy. Both supporting characters bring more over-the-top and somewhat absurdist humor; Punch offers an almost off-the-cuff presence with her great comedic delivery and Kellum knowingly interjects lines here and there, showing why Tommy is such good friends with Ben.
Nat Faxon and Dakota Johnson in Ben and Kate
But the real star is the genuine love and chemistry that seems to exist between Faxon and Johnson. Some of this can be contributed to their performances - both being solid but not stellar in the pilot - but mostly this element comes from creator Dana Fox, who based the show on the relationship she had with her own brother. Having said that, the series could do with a little less of the sweet (sometimes it reaches cavity-inducing levels) and a little more of the funny. This is a comedy series, after all.
The only downside is that we don't get a good idea of where these characters are going. Obviously Ben's misadventures will drive most of the episode plots, but Kate's love life will certainly be a big focus - especially if Maddie's father ever comes back into the mix. That's something I look forward to in the future - if the show survives.
In the end, Faxon and Johnson's dynamic should keep viewers around for a few episodes, and Punch and Kellum will hopefully only get funnier. The series certainly shows the potential to blossom and find sure-footing, much in the same way that New Girl or Happy Endings did through their first seasons.
Ben & Kate airs Tuesdays on Fox at 8:30 p.m. ET