Bent debuts tonight on NBC at 9 p.m. Eastern.
Bent feels like an uncanny valley comedy. It looks good, the cast is a lot of fun, the storytelling is low-key but solid, and the dialogue is snappy. But there just aren’t a lot of laughs there. There’s stuff to smile at and stuff to find amusing enough, but for the most part, this show seems to aim for the “hey, aren’t these people fun to hang out with?” vibe that another new NBC comedy, Up All Night, has made its bread and butter. The show’s pretty good, but that’s not going to be enough when it comes to surviving in a harsh timeslot—up against American Idol and Modern Family—with scheduling that has NBC burning off a six-episode order over three weeks. Still, there’s enough here for comedy fans to enjoy that it’s worth a look, if you just haven’t had enough Amanda Peet in your life recently.
Peet plays Alex, an uptight lawyer who’s getting over the end of her marriage and trying to move on in the sleepy beachside community of Venice, California. She needs some work done on her kitchen, so she hires a contractor named Pete Riggins (David Walton), and wouldn’t you know it? He’s almost exactly the opposite of her. He acts before he thinks and counts on his raw charisma to carry him through almost any interaction, where Alex is always leading with her head and finding herself trapped in situations she doesn’t know how to get out of. This is a setup as old as time, basically, but it especially evokes Cheers, which used much the same dynamic for its Sam-and-Diane romance, and Murphy Brown, which also featured a never-ending home improvement project that allowed for its heroine to receive earthy advice from a blue-collar house painter. (Murphy, at least, didn’t try to suggest the two as romantic partners all that often.)
There’s a reason people keep returning to that setup, though: If you get the right actors, then it just works. There’s something irresistible about seeing two people who are complete opposites slowly realize how right they are for each other, particularly on television, where the dance can be strung out for dozens of episodes, though it will inevitably become irritating somewhere down the line. Whether or not you like the show, then, will depend almost entirely on whether you think Peet and Walton have good chemistry.
As it turns out, they do, but it’s a little more low-key than a show like this needs to set off the unrequited-sexual-tension alarms Tumblr runs on. You can easily imagine Peet and Walton as a couple that’s been married for 15 years and has settled into a comfortable second act together. It’s a bit harder to imagine them as people who incite intense sexual excitement in each other, though it’s still early enough in the show that that may grow with time. (In general, the show’s worst moments are when the two are supposed to be “almost kissing” or something of the sort.) How long will it take to complete this metaphorical remodeling project, in which the client and contractor are changed almost as much as the kitchen that’s brought them together? Well, probably just as long as it takes them to hook up, actually. You know that going in, but it doesn’t really damage the show. It’s just the territory the series exists in.
Creator Tad Quill arrives at the show via the Bill Lawrence factory—his two most prominent jobs were on Scrubs and Spin City—and he’s brought a little bit of that Lawrence charm to his show. From episode one, Quill is filling in his show with fun locations and interesting supporting players, and it’s often more fun spending time with, say, Jeffrey Tambor as Walt, Pete’s washed-up actor father who also plays piano in a department store, than it is focusing on the main plot. Lawrence is one of the masters of the hang-out sitcom, where the story is almost incidental to just getting to spend time with people you like, and Quill does an admirable job over the course of the shortened season of coming up with characters who are fun, if not particularly and immediately funny.
In particular, Margo Harshman is a lot of fun as Alex’s sister, Screwsie (yes, that’s her name; yes, it’s irritating), who’s sort of a toned-down version of Cougar Town’s Laurie in her unapologetic embrace of her sexual appetites. (A moment where she and Pete try to figure out if they’ve slept together is the funniest thing in tonight’s pilot.) Pete’s contracting crew—including JB Smoove as Pete’s oldest employee and Jesse Plemons as the new guy—is also a frequent source of good material, and an episode next week where the crew has to wait in a cab while Pete infiltrates a wedding to help out his dad suggests the kind of chemistry that could become reliably funny, given enough time. And Joey King, as Alex’s daughter, Charlie, gives a child performance that feels natural, not precocious. Her chemistry with Tambor, in particular, is almost worth watching the show for, and it’s interesting to see how quickly Quill and his writers realize there’s fun to be had with that relationship.
There are flaws here, beyond just the “pleasant, more than funny” problem that has bedeviled so many single-camera sitcoms in recent years. The show leans a little too heavily on its soundtrack, which is populated with the quirky scoring that mars too many single-camera shows and is used too often to tell the audience exactly how to feel about any given situation. (The series has the same problem with pop music, which comes up perhaps a little too often, with the most obvious songs chosen in many cases.) The editing—particularly in the pilot, which has gone through a number of different versions—occasionally feels rough, and the character of Alex’s boyfriend, Ben (Matt Letscher), doesn’t get anything to do beyond exactly what you’d expect “the boyfriend” to do in a series that’s all about the two central characters eventually hooking up. Indeed, that predictability is the show’s greatest flaw, keeping the jokes from being funnier, the plotting from being sharper, and the characterizations from being looser.
At the same time, a show like this relies heavily on getting to know the characters and how they relate to each other before it can really draw belly laughs. In that respect, the short order is a problem. Over 22 episodes, the series might develop into something hilarious, but all we really see in these first six are glimmers of what might be. Quill’s doing a lot of things right, particularly in how he throws the characters together in different pairings to see which relationships pop and which don’t and in how he doesn’t bother with coming up with rationales for why these many disparate people are always hanging out together. His Venice is a weird little place where quirky people hang out and have adventures, and if the plotting is straight out of the sitcom handbook, well, there’s nothing wrong with returning to what’s worked time and again if it buys you space to get the characters right. A hang-out sitcom is all about a good vibe, and Bent suggests one that’s pleasant right now but could become terrific with time.