Eliza Coupe (“Happy Endings,” “Scrubs”), one of America’s great unknown national treasures, stars in USA’s newest original comedy, “Benched,” premiering October 28. In it, Coupe portrays Nina Whitley, a former corporate attorney whose life is turned upside down after a heart-wrenching breakup. Following a nervous breakdown for the ages, she returns to world of law, now as a public defender.
Hilarity, dare I say, ensues.
Nina is equal parts Denise Mahoney and Jane Kerkovich-Williams. She’s got the sass and rough exterior of the former, and the neurotic persona of the latter. It’s a part that series creators, Damon Jones and Michaela Watkins (“Trophy Wife”), must have crafted with Coupe in mind, or at the very least, reshaped once Coupe got on board. They also found the perfect straight man in the ever-reliable Jay Harrington, an underserved comedic actor who proved he could stand with the best of them in ABC’s short-lived “Better off Ted.” The chemistry between Coupe and Harrington is there from the get-go, but before anything can happen between Nina and Phil, she’ll have to get over her former fiancee, Trent (Carter McIntyre), a smooth-talking lawyer and enemy number one for the Office of the Public Defender.
“Benched” has a lot going for it, but that doesn’t mean its writers don’t have their work cut out for them. While the pilot establishes Nina in the courtroom, it does little to establish what the show will look like when our ensemble of good-to-bad lawyers aren’t juggling multiple plea bargains. If the show finds a nice balance, it can be the “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” of lawyer shows, and it has the cast to achieve that. Maria Bamford, fresh off last year’s “Arrested Development” revival, is a reliable, “method one” comedienne, while character actress, Jolene Purdy, plays well as Micah, a second year law intern and Nina’s verbal punching bag. Oscar Núñez (“The Office”) also stars as fellow colleague, Carlos, but has little to do in episode one. Current guest stars Fred Melamed (“The Good Wife”) and Cedric Yarbrough (“Reno 911”) have more to do than most of the supporting cast as the impatient Judge Nelson, and by-the-books court officer, Morris. A disagreement between Nina and Morris leads to the episode’s most satisfying bit of physical comedy, in which our disgruntled heroine struggles to climb over an automatic panel on her way to approach the bench.
Even if it wasn’t premiering amidst a meager fall for new comedies, “Benched” would stand out as a notch above the rest. With a top-tier cast, sharp writing, and a plot seemingly weathered to pair alongside USA’s ’round-the-clock crime procedurals, it’s the cabler’s best effort yet to establish it’s comedy brand. (Watch the series premiere ahead of next week’s televised debut.)