When yet another season of fall premieres rolls around, it’s more or less a sure bet that network lineups will include a smattering of courtroom-centric dramas or comedies. Fortunately, USA’s late-in-the-game proferring Benched, created by SNL veteran Michaela Watkins (most recently from the underrated and freshly cancelled Trophy Wife), is a delightful addition, thanks to a cast brimming with talent and a script with an eye for clever hysterics.
Benched’s exposition is covered with a swift, intro-worthy kick: Nina Whitely (Eliza Coupe, from the also-cancelled-too-soon Happy Endings), has a breakdown at her corporate law office after learning she has not made partner, and that her ex-fiance, Trent (Carter McIntyre), is newly re-engaged. (The freak-out, done in under six minutes, features a wonderful, cringe-worthy final office exit that
is an admixture of everyone’s worst job-quitting dreams and fantasies.) After six months, Nina finds herself on the first day of the job slumming it as a public defender, along with a colorful new cadre co-workers, including absent-minded Sheryl, (Maria Bamford), Micah (Jolene Purdy), a necktie-rocking, lip ring-sporting intern, Carlos (Oscar Nunez), the seeming voice of reason, and Phil (Jay Harrington), a compulsive gambler and washed-up courtroom champ (as well as, at this point, Nina’s suspected future love interest). We soon find that Nina’s opposition in court is none-other than her former lover, Trent, who looks like the only two WASP-y, smirk-enthusiast district attorneys/aspiring politicians I have ever met. The real scene-stealer here, though, is Fred Melamed as the presiding judge during Nina’s first day at arraignment; His zinger to Nina “If you ever approach my bench without permission again, I will ship you to Pelican Bay in a Hefty bag. Love you, mean it, best friends!” needs to be my new ringtone. Can someone do this for me? Let me know.
Coupe’s exemplary comedic portrayal of a type-A personality — somewhat reminiscent of her stint on Happy Endings — paired with her knack for physical comedy and clever zip-fast delivery shine in Benched. Although tedious moments can be found in the material that relies too much on socioeconomic tropes, and the ever-excellent comedian Bamford is (thusfar) sadly underdeveloped as a character, there is enough whip-smart dialogue to give one hope that this will be remedied quickly in the future. For now, Watkins’ Benched is a sharp sitcom with promise that won’t be thrown in the slammer anytime soon.