Step right up to Fox’s ‘Ben and Kate’ to see the greatest bro on Earth
BY LORI RACKL TV Criticfirstname.lastname@example.org August 20, 2012 7:22PM
Nat Faxon and Dakota Johnson (center) play the title roles on “Ben and Kate,” with Chicago’s Echo Kellum (left) as Tommy. Maggie Jones and Lucy Punch co-star.
‘BEN AND KATE’ ★★★
7:30 to 8 p.m. Tuesdays (starting Sept. 25) on WFLD-Channel 32
Updated: September 22, 2012 6:23AM
‘Ben and Kate” creator Dana Fox didn’t have to look far for inspiration for her show, one of the best new comedies of the fall season.
The titular character Ben Fox is based on Dana’s actual older brother, Ben Fox, a character in every sense of the word.
“He was sort of this Ferris Bueller-type guy,” she said, remembering the time Ben visited her at Stanford University. “He showed up and within one night had convinced me to move out of my single so that he could stay there. He lived there for two months … because he didn’t have a job.”
He clawed out of the ranks of the unemployed by showing up at Stanford’s career center and worming his way into whatever job interviews the college kids blew off.
“That’s the kind of stuff my brother did all the time,” said Dana, whose writing credits include the films “What Happens in Vegas,” “The Wedding Date” and “Couples Retreat.” “I figured I could write 100 episodes about him because I never, ever run out of stories.”
At its heart, “Ben and Kate” is a sibling odd-couple story about a sister teaching her brother to grow up and a brother teaching his sister to loosen up. A natural fit for Fox’s new four-sitcom block on Tuesday nights, the series won’t make its prime-time bow until Sept. 25. But there are plenty of ways to catch it before then.
This Sunday at Chicago’s AMC River East 21, Fox is hosting a 7 p.m. screening of “Ben and Kate” and its other freshman comedy, “The Mindy Project,” followed by sneak peeks at season two of “New Girl” and season three of “Raising Hope.” The screenings, taking place at 10 cities across the country, will include a live-streamed Q&A session with the shows’ stars.
Fans wanting to attend the free Chicago screening should email FOXTuesdayChicago@
ALLIEDIM.com. Doors open at 6 p.m. and attendance is on a first-come, first-served basis.
Starting at 4 p.m. Monday, viewers can watch the premieres of “Ben and Kate” and “The Mindy Project” online for two weeks via the series’ Facebook sites. The same episodes will be available on various websites — Yahoo, Hulu, AOL, MSN, Fox.com, Xfinity — and through participating cable and satellite providers, both online and on-demand, until Sept. 9.
If all of this seems like the network is pretty pumped up about its new comedies, that’s because it is.
“We’ve been building comedy momentum on Tuesday and we finally have the shows that have exactly the tone that we are looking for,” Fox entertainment chief Kevin Reilly said when unveiling the fall schedule to advertisers earlier this year.
The feel-good tone of “Ben and Kate” can be attributed largely to Nat Faxon, the comedic genius who plays Ben.
Faxon won a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for co-writing “The Descendants,” but here it’s his acting chops that shine. His facial expressions, timing and chemistry with his co-stars are golden. Faxon manages to take a character who could be labeled an idiot in less capable hands and turn him into someone you not only want to watch, you want him to win.
Balancing Ben’s spontaneous, dreamer personality is his socially awkward, overly responsible sister, Kate (Dakota Johnson, “The Five Year Engagement”). daughter of Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson, Dakota delivers a mostly charming but slightly uneven performance whose occasional misfires are all the more obvious in relation to Faxon and the strong supporting cast.
In the pilot we learn that cautious Kate dropped out of college to have a baby. Five years later, she’s a single mom to Maddie (“We Bought a Zoo’s” Maggie Jones, 8, aptly described by Dana Fox as “a smart bomb of cuteness that explodes in your face”).
Kate has to juggle raising her daughter, managing a bar and trying to resuscitate her anemic love life. Meanwhile, Hurricane Ben has blown back into town. This time he wants to stay and help Kate raise his niece, less as a fun uncle and more as a dad.
Rounding out the cast are Kate’s saucy, cocktail-waitress friend, BJ (Lucy Punch, “Bad Teacher”), and newcomer Echo Kellum, who plays Tommy.
“Tommy is Ben’s best friend, his partner in crime,” said Kellum, 29, who grew up on the South Side of Chicago. “He’s also deeply in love with Kate.”
Kellum left Chicago for California in 2009 and immersed himself in L.A.’s improv scene.
“This was literally my first pilot audition,” Kellum said. “Tommy was white in the pilot. That part changed.”
Tommy’s character is based on the real Ben Fox’s childhood friend, Tommy.
“Tommy’s a thousand times more amazing black,” Dana Fox said. “Let’s be honest.”
As for the real Ben Fox, he eventually grew up. Married to a psychologist, he has two children, a successful career in advertising and — thanks to his little sis — a TV show inspired by his life.
“He is so happy that the world finally revolves around him in the style to which he’s always been accustomed,” Dana Fox said, adding that he’s probably thinking, “it’s so weird that it hasn’t happened before now.”