Some of the best comedies don’t really have a big concept. They’re just a bunch of decent people thrown together doing funny things created by writers who have a handle on human nature. A show such as “Modern Family” is the perfect example. It’s about family bonds and particular personalities, nothing more than that, and it’s as wise as it is funny.
Fox’s “Ben and Kate” is also a single-camera comedy built around family, the flow of ordinary life, and a handful of sympathetic characters. The show, which premieres Tuesday night at 8:30 on Channel 25, is about a brother and sister who take care of each other, when they’re not accidentally screwing up each other’s lives. Kate (Dakota Johnson) is a responsible single mother working as a waitress, raising sweet 5-year-old daughter Maddie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones). She hasn’t had time for romance, since she got pregnant with Maddie her senior year in high school. She’s in a major rut. Ben (Nat Faxon) is a screw-up and a drifter, who always seems to be running away from or into trouble. He’s a man-child who’s obsessed with his ex-girlfriend.
Tuesday, Kate reluctantly decides to let Ben live with her and share parenting duties. Thus, an odd couple is born. She needs to loosen up, he needs tighter focus.
As Kate, Johnson is sweetly innocent and klutzy. She has a little-girl voice, not unlike that of her mother, Melanie Griffith (her father is Don Johnson), and she makes Kate seem like a believable person. She has a touch, and only just that, of Zooey Deschanel’s lovable awkwardness, which is fitting since “Ben and Kate” is in the same Fox comedy block as “New Girl.” As Ben, Faxon, a Boston native and an Oscar-winning screenwriter of “The Descendants,” needs to bring his manic energy down a notch. He tries a little too hard to show us how high-energy Ben is, at times running the risk of seeming bipolar, which isn’t funny. He’s the right actor for the role, especially in the scenes with little Maddie, when he talks to her as if she were an adult. Together, they bring a whole mess of cute. But still, a notch.
Supporting characters are essential in this kind of casual comedy, and “Ben and Kate” provides a pair of appealing second bananas. Tommy (Echo Kellum) is Ben’s best friend and his biggest fan, hero-worshiping him without noticing his mile-wide shortcomings. Kellum plays the dumb guy without obviousness, which is nice for a change. But British actress Lucy Punch delivers the flashier and more amusing supporting turn as BJ, a cocktail waitress who works with Kate. She is a scene-stealer — but a courteous one, more like a scene-borrower — as she gives Kate reams of bad advice. The bit Tuesday in which she preps Kate for a date is priceless, as she encourages her to “draw attention to your mouth, constantly,” while she demonstrates how that is done. Also priceless: when BJ makes over Maddie, turning her into a little tart. BJ has the potential to become the show’s breakout character, its Schmidt.
Punch’s comic material emanates out of knowledge of the actress and BJ; it’s not the kind of common sitcom repartee by joke-obsessed writers in a room, detached from the life of the characters being created on screen. And it’s the kind of material that gives “Ben and Kate” a lot of promise. “We’re like two peas in the worst pod ever,” Ben says to his sister Tuesday. Once again, he is totally wrong.