Deconstructing the notion of the “traditional family” is the longest living trend in American sitcoms. Norman Lear made it an art form with “All in the Family” and “The Jeffersons.” Today, “Modern Family” is the most obvious rebuttal of the conventional family structure in TV comedy, though its values in other areas are not quite as progressive as its initial thesis (according to one of the most recent episodes, pregnancy makes you dumber). And Ryan Murphy — known for making shows that shout at you — took this crowd-pleasing formula and created NBC’s “The New Normal.”
Ben and Kate
Tuesdays at 8:30 p.m.
Enter: “Ben and Kate,” FOX’s newest family sitcom about single mom Kate Fox (Dakota Johnson, “The Five-Year Engagement”) and her screwball brother Ben (Nat Faxon, “Allen Gregory”), who moves in with Kate to help her raise five-year-old Maddie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones, “We Bought a Zoo”).
While FOX’s other new sitcom, the Mindy Kaling-produced “Mindy Project” boasts veterans of the trade (the writers’ room is stacked, with high-caliber guest stars rolling every week), “Ben and Kate” is a project of relative newcomers. But there’s no learning curve to be seen: Johnson and Faxon’s capacity for delivering unforced comedy shines right from the start.
Though Faxon is given the more over-the-top, near-slapstick moments, Johnson is the show’s most pleasant surprise. She lands all the physical moments, whether it’s by imitating her hunky new boyfriend’s sex face (which happens to also be his guitar-playing face) or failing the art of flirting (“What’s bippin’? What does that mean?!”). And her perfectly awkward reading of lines like, “We are gonna have the sex” makes it easy to root for and laugh at the character.
On the surface, Johnson falls under the category of “awkward hot girl,” a sitcom trope epitomized by Zooey Deschenel’s Jess on “New Girl.” But the writers have infused Kate with honesty and complexity, making her much more than a manic-pixie fantasy. It makes sense that she’s hilariously awkward and unseasoned around men. Having Maddie at a young age took her out of the dating game for a while, and jumping back in is a work in progress.
Plus, Kate is completely aware of how dorky she is, and that makes it all the more fun. She’s OK with being that girl who dresses as Babe Ruth Bader Ginsberg for Halloween and being that mom who dresses her daughter as Baby Gandhi and Mini Marie Curie and Tiny Geraldine Ferraro and a personified representation of the death of print journalism … instead of the standard princess outfit. There’s never a temptation to pity Kate or pray that she get her shit together. It’s easy to accept her eccentricity, because she does. And once again, Johnson plays the character with an infectious sincerity.
The series seems slightly less certain of Ben, a supercharged man-child who returns to town for selfish, naïve reasons — namely, to stop the wedding of his ex — but stays for heartfelt ones. At times, the character seems too overstuffed, perhaps because Faxon doesn’t quite possess the nuance of Johnson. But the character’s best moments come when sharing the screen with Ben’s best friend Tommy (newcomer Echo Kellum), whose matter-of-fact reading of even the most hyperbolic lines makes you wonder how this is his first stint as a series regular.
And the vodka-soaked cherry on top of it all is Lucy Punch’s (“Bad Teacher”) BJ. As Kate’s wonderfully crass best friend (her counterargument to Kate telling her to take things slow with a new guy she’s seeing: “I’m extraordinarily good at sex and I like it.”) and a self-indulgent bartender (“I’m lazy! Alert the media!”), BJ is a biting hot mess, or, as she puts it herself, a glamorous enigma. Punch’s wry humor brings a whole new facet to the show’s repertoire, and sometimes she steals scenes with so much as an expression (her reaction to Kate admitting that she hasn’t had sex in 57 months is priceless).
But “Ben and Kate” doesn’t only deliver the sex jokes and physical comedy gold. Like any great family sitcom, it gets gooey when it needs to, sealing every episode with an irresistible warmth without trying too hard. The series stitches together a family made of its instantly endearing characters and refreshingly simple comedy, proving that it is still possible to power a sitcom with off-kilter family dynamics and make it feel new. And for that — even with a rookie-studded cast — it’s easily the best new sitcom this fall.