There’s a cult of viewers, myself included, that gets nostalgic about “Happy Endings,” one of the rare network ensemble comedies that had a unique voice. ABC recklessly moved the show around its schedule — it was in eight different timeslots, including Sunday night at 10, during its three-season run — and it never quite caught on. The writing was hyper-witty, and, even more impressively, the cast was razor sharp, as its members carved out clear identities and expertly delivered the thickly stacked lines of dialogue. They seemed to be riding their comedy vehicle at 100 mph.
And there’s a cult of viewers whose eyes get glassy when talking about “Better Off Ted,” another ABC comedy that was as clever and satirical as it was unsuccessful. It lasted only two short seasons, but that was long enough to see that the show was a smart, take-no-prisoners goof on corporate ruthlessness and bureaucracy, as well as a celebration of the peculiarities of cubicle culture.
So when a great part of “Happy Endings” joins up with a great part of “Better Off Ted,” magic occurs, right? Alas, no. Eliza Coupe was one of the most dependably funny members of the “Happy Endings” cast. As Jane, she brought the sitcom stereotype of perfectionist control freak to new heights, with a fierce sense of comic timing and the kind of mugging that requires a happy balance of confidence and shamelessness. And Jay Harrington was one of the most solid and appealing actors on “Better Off Ted” as the Ted of the title, a guy walking the line between human feeling and the cold-hearted requirements of big business.
But together on USA’s new comedy, “Benched,” they fail to ignite. The show, which premieres Tuesday night at 10:30, follows Coupe’s high-strung and ambitious Nina after she self-destructs at a corporate law firm and has to take a lower paying and less glamorous job as a public defender. There, she shares an office with, among others, Harrington’s Phil, a disheveled guy who has been worn down by the legal system and lost his drive. With affectionate humor, he pushes her to be less superficial, and she pushes him to find his motivation.
“Benched” isn’t awful, but it’s much too formulaic. Coupe hams it up beautifully; her opening scenes are as crisp as ever, as she throws a vase-tossing fit when she doesn’t make partner at her firm. It’s a light version of Laura Dern’s breakdown in the premiere of yet another much-grieved and prematurely canceled comedy, “Enlightened.” She throws insults at her colleagues and burns her professional bridges, leaving her with nowhere to turn for a job except the public defender’s office.
But the scripting in the first three episodes doesn’t hand Coupe a lot to work with. She gives every scene her all, but there’s not much more going on except for her enthusiasm and familiar workplace-sitcom gags. Her fixation on her ex-fiancé, a hollow pretty boy named Trent (Carter MacIntyre), is similarly played-out from the get-go. Harrington is fine as the co-lead, with a rumpled charm and a sense of humor so dry his co-workers don’t always know he’s kidding. But he has no particularly challenging or original material at his disposal. Like Coupe, he’s a bit stranded in “Benched.”