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Mon January 28, 2013
A Farewell Salute To 'Ben & Kate,' A Show About Friends Who Are Actually Friends
Whether this week's announcements that both ABC's Don't Trust The B- In Apt. 23 and Fox's Ben & Kate are being yanked from the schedules mark the beginning of the Great Sitcom Massacre of 2013 remains to be seen. It almost certainly means the end of two strong shows whose casts were clearly having a blast making them.
In the case of Ben & Kate, it also means that television's current comedy slate is losing one of its rare shows where everyone likes everyone else. There are no characters who are embedded in the core group purely as a result of circumstance (e.g., coworkers, neighbors, etc.) and thus need to be endured. They're all there because, given all the options, that's where they want to be.
It certainly helps that the characters all know each other and have for years, in contrast with a show that starts with a newcomer being introduced to an already-established group, with the attendant frictions thereof. But even that's no guarantee. Ben & Kate began with a free-spirited older brother returning full-time to the life of his more responsible sister and her young daughter. There could have been any number of ways to spin that into conflict between the two, with their underlying love for one another remaining even as they clashed. See, for example, NBC's current White House sitcom 1600 Penn.
Ben & Kate took a different tack. The siblings have occasionally butted heads, but more important than them loving one another is the fact that they like one another. And they like their friends Tommy and B.J. And Tommy and B.J. like them back. So do Tommy's parents, whose mild exasperation at being occasionally drafted as last-minute babysitters for six-year-old Maddie can't disguise their affection for everyone involved. Everyone is happy to have everyone else in their lives. They're all one team, them against the world.
That's not all that common on television, and certainly not in television comedy. More typical are shows like Community, where the characters have grudgingly learned to love another while constantly struggling with the fact that they quite often don't like one another very much. Modern Family and Cougar Town have similar (though less extreme) dynamics, while a show like Happy Endings shows its best-pals sextet occasionally treating each other badly enough that they frankly seem like a bit of a frenemy time bomb.
Even Parks And Recreation, as effervescently sunny a comedy as you're likely to find on television going back at least a decade, has April, who (despite having evolved from a simple grump machine to someone far more sympathetic and, in her way, affectionate) continues her passive vendetta against Ann. And the entire cast is unified in their exasperation with office scapegoat Jerry Gergich.
So maybe it's not so surprising that two of the only other shows where everyone likes one another are Ben & Kate's timeslot neighbors New Girl and Raising Hope. Just this week, in fact, Raising Hope demonstrated this very thing with an episode where weirdo grocery-store coworker Frank stealth-married Jimmy to prevent him from marrying Sabrina. (Just go with it.) But despite Sabrina sublimating her rage and offering to cut Frank's brakes as payback, the storyline resolved in a manner that made Frank deeply sympathetic in the eyes of not just the audience but the characters as well. (The A.V. Club has a lovely discussion about it.) So good-natured is Raising Hope that even the peripheral creeper is worthy not just of love but of being liked.
That's not the only way to do a comedy, of course. Conflict can come from within as well as without, which is why The Office has Dwight v. Jim, Suburgatory has Tessa v. Dahlia, The Big Bang Theory has Penny v. Wolowitz and It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia has everyone v. everyone. Neither style is necessarily any better than the others. But Ben & Kate was one of the few shows holding up the torch for omnidirectional affection. Now that it's been shelved, that torch just grew a little less bright.