Well, folks, it looks like we’re the only people watching Bent. But I kind of like that idea. Years from now, when television has ceased to exist as a medium, and we’re all cyborgs, sifting through the digital ashes, or we all have uploaded our consciousnesses to a computer and we’re reading over old Internet pages to remember the good times or something, somebody’s going to stumble upon this review of Bent, a three-week show that NBC burned off in the spring of 2012, and they’re going to wonder just what the hell it is. Eventually, new religions will spring up around the question of whether Riggins and Alex hooked up, got married, had children. In our new robot bodies, we’ll be so cold, so alone! All we will long for is the knowledge that David Walton and Amanda Peet once played characters who eventually kissed, and that will warm our little robot hearts.
Tonight’s two episodes rely on what I guess could be called the Bent formula, if we were going to start codifying such things after just four episodes of television. There’s a stock sitcom setup—our hero catches the boyfriend of the woman he’s interested in cheating on her; our two heroes have to pretend to be a couple at a wedding so the female lead can make partner—then the fun comes from watching these characters interact. I’m not going to argue there’s anything groundbreaking about this show, but sometimes, the simple pleasantness of something can be reason enough to recommend it. In particular, I’m enjoying the ways the supporting characters dart in and around and out of the stories, offering up plenty of opportunities to toss jokes at the protagonists as they wander by.
Let’s talk about something I don’t like, however: the music! There’s this trend in single-camera comedies to paper over every obvious gap with lots of intrusive music, and it’s one of my least favorite things on TV. There’s a scene tonight where Charlie is talking about how the kids in her class make fun of her for her dad being in jail, and she pulls up a photo that’s on Facebook of her face superimposed on a prison uniform. The kids call her “jailbird,” she says, and Walt says that the 42 “likes” on the picture have to hurt. In and of itself, this isn’t a bad scene, but because the show wants us to know that nothing seriously bad is going to happen, it’s ruined by plucky music that starts bubbling along once Charlie shows everybody the picture. The music is there to keep the moment from getting too heartfelt (on an ‘80s sitcom, this would have been overburdened with saccharine faux-strings) and to carry us through to the next edit. But it becomes distracting in and of itself, and it hurts the scene.
This is just one example. The issue has popped up in all four episodes at this point, and it seems to get a little bit worse with each of them. Granted, this is the sort of thing single-camera sitcoms tend to overload on in the early going, then wean themselves off of (as anyone who’s ever read an interview with Bill Lawrence about the early days of Scrubs will realize). It’s still the sort of thing that’s easy enough to fix down the line, and if Bent got a second season (commence stunned laughter), I would hope all involved would agree to lay off of the distracting music cues.
That said, I was surprised how much I enjoyed getting to see these characters again when I rewatched these episodes for this piece. I may have underrated the show a bit last week, simply because I marathoned all six episodes, and it’s hard for a “charm” show to work when watching it in episode after episode. (Indeed, I think NBC is making a mistake by airing this show an hour at a time, but it’s not like NBC is known for making lots of good decisions when it comes to its sitcoms.) Getting to see the guys fucking around Alex’s house or being concerned about how good of a job Ben had done installing the switch was a treat. I also like the way that the show takes scenes you expect to go one way and does something else with them, something I didn’t really talk about last week. The plots themselves are fairly predictable—of course Alex and Ben weren’t exclusive, so Pete’s attempts to drive a wedge between them backfire—but the individual scenes can allow for surprise. Take, for instance, Pete and Ben going up to Alex’s bedroom to fight over her, only to be surprised by the weird assortment of items she seems to keep in there. The show easily could have gone in for a big, slapstick-y fight scene. Instead, it did something more bizarre and interesting.
The second episode isn’t quite as clever, but I’ll always enjoy a “two people who aren’t a couple but should be pretend to be a couple to help one of them out” storyline, if it’s well-done. The true pleasures in “A-Game” came from watching Pete charm the other lawyers—because of course he did—and watching the other three members of the construction crew hang out in the truck while waiting for Pete to get back from the wedding (at which he is both delivering crab cakes to his father and hanging out with Alex) made for a lot of fun as well. This is just a show that allows for a lot of enjoyment from watching the various people bounce off of each other, and while that doesn’t make for amazing television, it makes for a pretty good time.
Is “a pretty good time” what you’re looking for in your TV watching? More likely than not, you’re looking for a bigger recommendation than that. But there’s something to be said for Jeffrey Tambor really getting into his drum circle or Jesse Plemons heading into a wedding to tell his crush that he’s got a thing for her, only to immediately turn around at the door. For every element of Bent that doesn’t quite work—Alex’s boss was another character type sitcoms have beaten into the ground—there’s something just as low-key and quirky and fun around the corner. Those of you who are paying attention from the future: No, nobody watched Bent, but I’m going to guess that most of us who did had a perfectly fine time doing so. And sometimes, that’s enough.
- Screwsie continues to be my favorite of the many supporting characters. I like that the show allows her to be both kind of spacey and really good at her job. You could watch both episodes tonight and get two very different views of the character, yet Margo Harshman made the two halves of Screwsie work very well as one character.
- JB Smoove seems to have been brought onto the program entirely to give nontraditional line readings of lines that aren’t exceptionally funny on the page. For the most part, this is working, and I have to say that I approve.
- I’m happy the show didn’t drag out the “Will Ben and Alex have sex?” plot too much longer. Because, yes, they’re going to have sex. Sex on TV is too often treated as some weird, mystical thing, when it’s usually just something that people stumble into in a drunken stupor. (Or, okay, yes, it can be a weird, mystical thing. But that’s all it is on TV, and that can be silly.)
- I agree with Ben that having a birdcage with no bird in it is even weirder than having a bird.
- "It's a law office, so mostly metal." Alex confirms what I've always known to be true about the musical preferences of lawyers.