The FOX family is trying their hand at a new kind of family this fall with their half-hour comedy, Ben and Kate, starring Oscar winner Nat Faxon and Dakota Johnson as a brother and sister against the world. But while the show sets up quirky and unique characters, the pilot episode had us waiting for one more punchline: that the two weren’t really biologically brother and sister at all– because their chemistry was just crossing over the line of playful when you took their bloodline into consideration. We’re all for exploring different kinds of relationships on television, but this one, thus far, exhibits so much of the traditional “will they/won’t they” tension it’s…unintentionally awkward.
Character actor Faxon plays the somewhat slacker Ben Fox who ends up visiting his sister Kate (Johnson) as a ruse to get back to town to break up the wedding of his ex-girlfriend. But once he’s back, he realizes just how much of a mess her life actually is and decides to forego his own selfish interests to help her out—including taking care of her adorable little daughter Maddie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones, who should be the breakout star of fall 2012). Both siblings have matured at greatly varying levels (him seemingly not at all, her seemingly too early in life because of having her own kid), but both have the same issues and inability to see flaws in their own relationships. Hopefully as a pair they will help each other grow and get past that, but honestly, on it’s own that sounds like a maudlin concept for a comedy.
Thankfully, though, this series comes from the mind of Dana Fox, a woman so quick-witted and snappy—a woman who pays attention to every little nook and cranny of her characters and the world in which they inhabit– and has cautiously crafted voids in one that the other can fill, making them the perfect pair.
Fox is bound to call out the eccentricities of the brother/sister duo in the second episode. After all, her style (both in person and in writing) greatly reminds us of Suburgatory creator Emily Kapnek, a woman who when called out by critics for some less-than-platonic vibes radiating off of her father/daughter duo of characters, began to poke fun at it in a subtle but meta way on-screen.
While Faxon’s presence looms large every time he is on-screen, Johnson is meticulously muted. Together, they even the energy out, but in scenes that only feature one of them opposite the show’s supporting friend characters (Echo Kellum and Lucy Punch), we are taken on an almost manic rollercoaster of tone. Punch’s sharp wit and innate quirkiness greatly matches Faxon’s, and it is our hope that they begin to share more scenes together soon because she seems to be the much better match for him on a thespian level.
There were many genuinely enjoyable moments in Ben and Kate’s pilot. Faxon’s sweet interaction with Jones marks one of our new favorite comedic pairings, proving that child actors in such a show’s format don’t have to simply be schticky or schmaltzy but can actually be the thing we look forward to the most. However, the only moment that made us laugh out-loud was a physical gag– and one that Up All Night used last season anyway. For a “not a sitcom” show in 2012, we want to see Ben and Kate go harder with the humor, especially because the actors are all capable of drawing huge reactions. Looming over young Jones’ head, as well, still remains the issue of the incest-y vibes we picked up on. Surely she may, too, and could you just imagine those big eyes looking up at Faxon and asking why he just can’t be her new daddy?
The pilot episode of Ben and Kate removes the love interests for both Faxon and Johnson, which leaves them with only each other. On paper, and in theory, it’s a nice message: that boyfriends, girlfriends, even regular friends come and go but family is forever. But on-screen it creates that extra energy between the two that implies more than just a family connection. Because of Fox’s sunny energy and well-meaning demeanor, though, we’re inclined to assume that’s just a kink that will be worked out in episode two or three. And we can’t wait to see where the show goes then.
Ben and Kate premieres on FOX on September 25th 2012 at 8:30 p.m. but is available online courtesy of FOX as of August 27th at 2 p.m. PT.