On paper, Ben and Kate looks precision-engineered to be pleasant in the most sterile way possible. The characters, though they’re not exactly the Waltons, were clearly conceived for wide appeal: manchild Ben (Nat Faxon); his uptight but adorable sister, Kate (Dakota Johnson); Kate’s angelic little girl, Maddie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones); and two quirky, multicultural friends, the Brit B.J. (Lucy Punch) and African-American Tommy (Echo Kellum). Furthermore, the series is unerringly nice, especially in its tendency to end each episode with a gooey affirmation of the love shared by this rag-tag surrogate family.
Ben and Kate differentiates itself by the confidence of its direction and the shrewdness of its casting. Faxon, fresh off an endless parade of commercial spots and an Oscar win for penning The Descendants, is likely the most recognizable face, but Johnson, whose smart comedic timing contrasts her character’s naïveté, often provides the biggest laughs, while Punch and Kellum, who deliver their lines with absurd, exaggerated cadences, also give reliably funny performances. In their best moments, the ensemble achieves a gleeful rhythm, but a talented cast can only elevate this sort of material so much.
Ben and Kate occasionally shows fleeting signs of a sharper and less populist sensibility among all the unremarkable feel-good moments, but it’s afraid to embrace its more risqué inclinations. The B plot in the standout episode “Emergency Kit,” for instance, mines comedy from a lascivious exchange about fraud between B.J. and her hyper-masculine boss, Buddy (Rob Cordry), who explains that he sometimes impersonates a health inspector willing to turn a blind eye on a restaurant’s violations for a free meal. B.J. responds by pulling a jar filled with glass shards out of her purse and placing it on the table. “I don’t go to a restaurant without bringing this,” she says knowingly. Though their flirtation becomes funnier as the advances grow more brazen, the episode never dares to stray too far from its TV-PG rating. To wit, by the end of the episode, a few emotional speeches have been given and a promising plot about two horny weirdos has mutated into a mundane lesson about the value of not having sex on the first date. In spite of Ben and Kate’s charms, its propensity for subduing the idiosyncrasies of its characters in the service of a simple emotional payoff makes it disappointing.