Women lawyers are dominating TV this season. Whether running for office in The Good Wife, solving global conspiracies in Scandal, or keeping the accused out of prison in How to Get Away with Murder, these women show that you don’t need a Jack McCoy or Perry Mason to lead a serious legal drama. Now joining the line-up of Alicia Florrick, Olivia Pope, and Annalise Keating is Nina Whitley of USA Network’s new show, Benched. With so many other strong women lawyers on TV, do we really need another one? The answer, it turns out, is: YES. Benched, unlike most other legal shows on TV, is a sitcom. And Nina Whitley, more Ally McBeal than Alicia Florrick, proves that lawyers can be funny — both to laugh at and to laugh with.
At first, the premise of Benched seems all too familiar. The pilot opens with a mascara-smeared Nina (played by Happy Ending’s Eliza Coupe) on the phone getting dumped by her boyfriend. Nina hangs up to attend a meeting where she expects to be made partner. But then — surprise! — she gets passed over for a colleague. A classic meltdown ensues, culminating in Nina breaking an Elton John-gifted vase. I literally cringed watching this scene. It reminded me far too much of the Passed-Over-Promotion-Leads-to-Career-Ending-Tantrum trope. I braced myself for a cliché-filled season.
But my fears were soon allayed. Despite its weak beginning, Benched delights in unexpected ways. After quitting her law firm job, Nina finds herself at the public defender’s office. A fish out of water, Nina’s struggle to assimilate in her new environment while maintaining the hope that one day she’ll be welcome back to “money law” is the main source of the show’s comedy. In one episode, she convinces her boss to let her deliver the speech at the annual public defender’s fundraiser. It’s her one chance to impress the “money law” partners and be welcomed back into their fold. Naturally, things don’t go as planned. There’s no wardrobe malfunction or trip and fall, thank goodness, but a relatable series of awkward sentences and pauses that highlight just how different dynamics are among niches in the legal profession.
Nina is also supported by a fantastic ensemble of three-dimensional characters, most notably her inevitable love interest Phil (Better off Ted’s Jay Harrington), a gambler with a drinking problem who ended up at the defender’s office after a fall from grace from corporate law. Then there are the clients. Although the plight of the indigent is hardly a laughing matter, the show pokes more fun at Nina herself through the lens of her clients than at the defendants, themselves.
Most lawyer shows are dramas for a reason. Life or death cases provide high stakes for audiences to buy into. In this way, Benched is a refreshing departure from the norm — a show about real, high-stakes legal work that nonetheless doesn’t take itself too seriously.