The new USA comedy “Benched” doesn’t spend a lot of time waiting to play to its greatest strength, series star Eliza Coupe. Having previously starred as Jane on the all too short–lived “Happy Endings,” Coupe continues to bring the type-A personality humor she utilized to “Benched” protagonist Nina Whitley.
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Nina is a high-strung, career-minded corporate lawyer who’s sacrificed almost all of her personal life to reach the top of her field. But when she loses out on the position as partner at her firm, she goes on a bridge-burning tirade. “I gave you everything for nothing!” she screams as she proceeds to smash possibly every breakable object in her reach. The breakdown is one of the episode’s greatest moments, and Coupe sells the absolute frustration that has boiled over, as she proceeds to call out most of her colleagues before having to awkwardly wait for the elevator to go down.
Now reduced to being a public defender, Nina finds herself in a case of culture shock. Having defended the rich, Nina now must represent the poor and underprivileged. Her coworkers are a group of misfits, most notably Phil Quinlan (Jay Harrington, “Better Off Ted”), a jaded, day-drinking lawyer. The pilot goes a little paint-by-numbers with Phil and Nina, playing off the pair’s immediate sexual tension, which is aided by Coupe’s chemistry with Harrington. As Phil tries to offer Nina a drink, “Did anybody ever tell you it’s rude to turn down a drink,” she counters, “Did anyone tell you that you talk like a date rapist.”
Inside the courtroom, Nina is a fish out of water, dealing with a grouchy and apathetic Judge Don Nelson (Fred Melamed, “In a World…”) who just wants to get through the day as fast as possible. Nelson is probably the most standout of the supporting cast, who are mostly relegated to the background, as his cantankerous personality clashes with Nina’s overachieving sensibilities. Also in the court as assistant district attorney is Trent (Carter McIntyre, “Drop Dead Diva”), Nina’s ex-fiancé. Trent’s barely defined, and the show makes it clear that all the audience really needs to know is he’s a douche.
Written by series creators Michaela Watkins (“Saturday Night Live”) and Damon Jones (“G.I.L.F.”), “Benched” takes a relatively smart look at the position of a woman in the legal profession. Despite her excellent track record, Nina struggles to gain recognition in the workplace. At her corporate firm she’s passed over by her male superior in favor of a younger, more attractive coworker. Post-meltdown, Nina’s turned into mostly a subject of gossip and is most noted for her breakdown and having slept with Trent. At one point Nina questions, “Is there any gossip out there about my good qualities?” as she’s been reduced by her coworkers to a parody of herself. The writing successfully demonstrates that even though Nina is out of her element, she is a smart and competent enough lawyer to successfully adjust to her new surroundings and earn the respect she deserves; therefore, her win at the end of the episode feels genuine and not contrived.
A lot of credit for the successes of the episode goes to Coupe, who brings a necessary intelligence to Nina while granting her the vulnerabilities that come with her uptight attitude. Even though the secondary cast needs some further definition, “Benched” can comfortably lean on its leading lady as it settles in.