Ben and Kate (FOX) “Pilot” Review

Ben and Kate

The first episode of a sitcom can be a tricky thing; you don’t want it to be entirely set-up, with no indication of what the show would be week-to-week, but at the same time, you don’t want to throw the audience into the middle of things without any backstory at all. In its pilot episode (titled, aptly enough, “Pilot”), Ben and Kate manages to balance on the tightrope incredibly successfully, while at the same time, and this is most important of all, making me laugh.

The intro to the episode snips along at a breakneck pace, with a voice over introducing us to the basics (Kate’s an unlucky-in-love single mom, Ben’s an untethered manchild, Maddie’s a mildly precocious child) and giving us a pretty solid idea of the personalities of the three main characters. From there, we can move on to the meat of the episode, in which Kate’s afraid to seal the deal with a new man, and Ben schemes to crash the wedding of his one that got away.

But, honestly, the plot barely matters. And I mean that as a compliment. More important are the moments the script provides for the actors to bounce off each other. The first laugh-out-loud moment of the episode, for me at least, came in the bar, when Ben gave a weak high five to Kate’s date, then walked away, loudly slapped Tommy’s hand, and pointedly looked back to the date. It was a fantastic little gag, and the actors pulled it off perfectly. In fact, there’s not much the actors don’t pull off here. If Dakota Johnson and Nat Faxon didn’t the right sibling chemistry of antagonism and unconditional love that they do, the whole show could have fallen apart, and Maggie Elizabeth Jones is a perfectly serviceable child actress, who I could see growing into the role comfortably.

The real standouts, however, are Echo Kellum and Lucy Punch as Tommy and BJ, respectively. As sideline characters, they get to be wackier than those at the center, and they take advantage of the opportunity. Tommy’s deadpan idiocy is endearing, especially in the scene in which he excitedly describes the dinner offerings at the wedding, and doesn’t know how to pronounce “salmon.” Meanwhile, BJ’s slutty charm is only enhanced by Punch’s masterful physical comedy; her rubbing the tiny cocktail straws across her mouth was one of the high points of the episode. Even a scene which otherwise felt completely contextless and unnecessary, when she was putting makeup on little Maddie, was saved by just how funny it was to see a grown woman vulgarly crouching on a child’s bench.

Ben and Kate isn’t afraid of injecting some sentimentality into the comedy, if the pilot is to be believed. The moment when the siblings, after a two-timing date and a failed wedding interruption, crouch down under the table, calling back to a childhood flashback we saw earlier, was cute, and genuinely touching. Of course, it was immediately undercut by Ben laughing about how awesome it was that time he almost drowned Kate. It’s a strategy the episode uses more than once, employing it again at the very tail end of things, with the siblings sweetly putting Maddie to bed, then crashing into a drum set as soon as they close her bedroom door. It was sweet and silly and economical in how it payed off a joke set up much earlier in the half hour. It showed off the best of what Ben and Kate has to offer, and going forward I can only hope it continues to deliver on that promise.

But what do y’all think? Was the pilot enough to have you calling yourselves Ben and Kate fans already? Or have you already deleted it from your DVR?