Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Ben And Kate: “Scaredy Kate”

Illustration for article titled Ben And Kate: “Scaredy Kate”

Being Kate has got to be tough. Sure, the whole single mom/insane brother is rough, but what’s really difficult is that it’s so easy to make a character like Kate into a hellish fun sponge. It’s inherent in her character to tone down the goofiness so the audience has rational person to identify with—she is our Jim Halpert shrug—but it’s also a problem that permeates all sitcom mother figures. These overprotective, overanxious traits could be exacerbated because not only is Kate mom to an actual child, but she is also a de facto mother to Ben, BJ, and Tommy. Being neurotic over a child’s well-being can be forgiven, but trying to control the life of a full grown adult (let alone three) generally makes it easier for writers to let the character fall into a vortex of bitchery that holds everyone back from having a good time for their own good, as if it’s supposed to be shorthand for maternal love.

But what I love about Kate is that she revels in her own lameness. She would rather be Babe Ruth Bader Ginsburg than a slutty parking meter attendant and finds glee in admitting she is more likely to call the cops on a party than attend. When she pairs up with square-jawed single dad Will (Geoff Stults), it’s love when he mirrors her own exhaustion. Because Kate seems so excited about her staid role in life, she never seems pitiful, unlike so many long-suffering television mothers. She’s easily influenced by her charges, but it loosens up the character that someone like Modern Family’s Claire doesn’t get to do very often. Modern Family needs episodes like “Open House of Horrors” because we need to be reminded that Claire isn’t there just to foil Phil’s good time.  Kate doesn’t have many awww-soundtracked it’s-all-worth-it moments because she seems genuinely happy taking care of all of these people.

As a function of her role as ultimate mom, Kate has a reason to be awkward around men (“What’s bippin? What does that mean?”). If romantic comedies and sitcoms (cough, New Girl, cough) have taught us anything, it’s that gorgeous women are incredibly awkward around men. But Kate never feels like the pre-makeover section of She’s All That. She hasn’t dated regularly since Maddie was born and, after giving birth as a relative kid herself, has no post-collegiate dating experience. It feels natural that Kate has no idea what she’s doing when it comes to seduction because she’s barely done it. And in “Scaredy Kate,” this works to a hilarious advantage.

“Scaredy Kate” once again relies on familiar tropes, like slutty Halloween costumes (“One for each booby. Quack, quack.”) and long, strange drug trips, but it works particularly well as a vehicle for Dakota Johnson’s Kate. Those who have been following Ben and Kate reviews since the pilot may remember I hated on Johnson a bit, but she’s really come into her own, especially because of how much more comfortable Kate seems in her own happiness, a dual effort by both the writers and Johnson. Rather than play her overprotectiveness as a maternal extension, they play it for laughs because Kate’s just a giant nerd, and she loves it. This is not news. We saw how happy she was spending time with Maddie on her birthday in “21st Birthday,” but so many sitcom mothers seem to hate their children and/or role.

On other fronts, I love the weird bond that Maddie and BJ have formed. BJ learns a Very Important Lesson about her influence on Maddie, but it doesn’t feel saccharine or unearned. It was an extension of BJ’s love for this child that she never expected to be in her life. Ben and Tommy’s drug-induced haze was nothing special, although it went behind the classic sitcom actor playing stoned—with pronouncements of random hunger or “Look at my hand, dude!” I did like the writers actually addressing an aspect of Ben and Tommy’s relationship, rather than just let them flounder because they had nothing else to do. It’s almost a blessing that the Ben and Tommy drug odyssey wasn’t that distracting, if only because it gave Kate more room to revel in her own excellent boringness.

Stray observations:

  • Kate attends a lot of parties considering she’s a single mom.
  • Much like I would watch a buddy comedy starring BJ and Maddie as Odd Couple-style roommates, I would also watch a full half hour of Nat Faxon talking to himself in the mirror.
  • “I was a night watchman at a doll factory, Kate. Nothing scares me.”
  • I want Kate to make my next Halloween costume: “Baby Gandhi! Tiny Geraldine Ferraro!” “The death of print journalism.”
  • “Nan-too-kay”
  • “Are these all yours? You’ve given birth so many times!”
  • Tommy is a phenomenal dancer