Tonight marks a milestone in the (so far) short life of Ben & Kate. The New Girl-styled sitcom about grown siblings who move in together — she’s a serious-minded single mom; he’s a terminal adolescent with commitment issues — has been on the air four weeks, a whole month, and is one of the few new sitcoms that looks as if it will stay for a while.
Just last week, parent network Fox ordered several more new episodes, on top of the initial eight episodes guaranteed all new series. That means Ben & Kate will survive both the baseball playoffs and the U.S. presidential election campaign, despite early middling reaction from viewers overwhelmed by the return of Tuesday-night time-period competitors NCIS, Dancing With the Stars, The Voice and This Hour Has 22 Minutes.
Then again Ben & Kate, like its eponymous characters, shows early signs of maturing or, if not maturing exactly, growing on one. Dakota Johnson as Kate and Nat Faxon as Ben have real chemistry together. They’re believable as grown siblings. The rivalries and childhood resentments are plainly evident, but so is the loyalty that comes from growing up together in a household of constantly bickering parents.
Ben & Kate creator Dana Fox, a writer for New Girl in that sitcom’s first season, based Ben & Kate‘s characters on her own relationship with her brother, whom she recently described to TV critics in Los Angeles as a “really, really smart Ferris Bueller type” who, when he was younger, did “incredibly dumb things.”
While Ben & Kate is designed for TV, where even the most mundane minutiae of day-to-day life is heightened and exaggerated for comic effect, there’s an underlying sweetness and goofy charm that looks, sounds and feels real. It’s refreshing for a change to see a sitcom where a single-mom character isn’t a nitwit, a ditz or constantly on the make.
In another vote of confidence, Ben & Kate is one of the few regularly scheduled programs that will feature a new episode tonight, the same night as the second-of-three U.S. presidential debates. The story revolves around Kate’s 21st birthday, which she’d just as soon forget. Ben is determined to throw her a birthday party just the same, and Kate has a change of heart after she learns Ben has invited her wild friend from high school.
Ben & Kate is paired with the similarly charming, disarmingly honest Raising Hope. And while they’re very different in setting and story — one is rural, the other urban; one is about a messy but loyal extended family, the other is about separated siblings trying to make up for lost family time – Raising Hope and Ben & Kate share a similar affection for decent, honest working folks trying to get through life without hurting themselves or anyone else.
In Ben & Kate‘s pilot episode, a childhood buddy of Ben’s asked him long he would be in town, “so I can calibrate my expectations.”
Watching a new series, especially one that shows early promise, is all about calibrating expectations. Promise is easily dashed. Every so often, though, a newcomer shows promise and then grows from there.
It’s too early to call Ben & Kate a keeper. It took New Girl nearly a year, after all, to find the right voice and tone. Schmidt wasn’t the lightning rod for comedy n New Girl‘s early episodes that he became later on.
Ben & Kate‘s early signs are encouraging, though. And sometimes encouragement is enough to keep watching.