“Bent,” the charming new romantic comedy that debuts tomorrow night at 9 on NBC, gets its title from the credo of the main character’s father, a struggling actor who responds to adversity by insisting “I am bent, not broken.”
That credo applies just as well to several of the show’s main characters. Our hero, surfer dude contractor Pete Riggins (David Walton), is a recovering gambling addict who has blown up most of the relationships in his life but is just charming enough to keep getting second, third and fifth chances. Our heroine – and Pete’s potential love interest – is Alex (Amanda Peet), uptight corporate lawyer and single mom still putting back the pieces of her life after her ex-husband went to prison for white collar crime. Alex’s daughter Charlie (Joey King) is really struggling with her father’s incarceration, and finds herself more comfortable with Pete than with her mom’s perfectly nice doctor boyfriend Ben (Matt Letscher).
They are damaged, but not beyond repair, just as most of the work Pete and his lazy crew do on Alex’s kitchen remodel has to be redone a time or six.
Creatively, “Bent” is actually in better shape than most of its characters. It is snappy, and funny enough when it needs to be. It is acutely aware of all the will-they/won’t-they clichés and enjoys letting Pete, Alex and Ben be aware of them, too. And it has absolutely terrific chemistry between Walton and Peet, the kind that can’t be manufactured – even though I’ve seen many, many unfortunate series try. It’s not perfect, but it’s also not particularly bent. (Wrinkled, maybe.)
Commercially, though, I fear that NBC has put the show into a pre-broken position. It’s airing all six episodes in a three-week span, with back-to-back episodes every Wednesday at 9 and 9:30, and with the first episode each week going up against the “Modern Family” juggernaut, albeit against “Modern” repeats. They aren’t quite as juggernaut-y, but still potent competition for any comedy, much less a new one on a network that’s struggled to launch any new comedies for quite a while now.
Yes, NBC has a lot of mid-season inventory this year, including another new sitcom, “Best Friends Forever,” and the network is playing a lot of scheduling games to get all these shows on and off the air before the end of the season. But six episodes in three weeks is the kind of move you make when you want to be rid of a show as quickly as possible: call it Mid-Season Burn-Off Theatre. I get that Thursdays are overcrowded (though I enjoyed these six episodes of “Bent” more than I have most of a full season of “Up All Night”) and that they’ve got to go somewhere, but the show deserves better than it appears to be getting.
Again, it is trodding exactly zero new ground. We’ve seen every combination of this kind of love triangle in the past. This is just a very well-executed version of it.
Walton has bounced around in supporting roles of various short-lived NBC shows the last few years (“Perfect Couples,” “100 Questions” and even the web-to-TV import “Quarterlife”). Here, he’s the main attraction, and his defiantly laid-back persona actually works even better that way than it did as a sideshow. Pete’s acutely aware of the effect he has on women, and what it allows him to get away with elsewhere, and he instantly recognizes that Alex likes him, even if she doth protest too much.
When she accuses him of acting like they’re on a date in their initial meeting, he gets indignant and asks, “Am I holding two wine glasses? Are my pants off? Is there a bowl of my homemade killer guac in front of you?” In a later episode, she tells him, “You’re delusional, and you’re not pulling off that jacket,” and he looks down at the garment and cheerfully responds, “I think we both know that’s a lie.”
The relaxed guy who hooks up with the repressed girl is a cliché within a cliché. It often makes it impossible for the female character to be funny, and makes you wonder why the guy is interested. But “Bent” creator Tad Quill (“Scrubs”) gives Alex her fair share of good lines, and more importantly lets her enjoy the banter with Pete even as she’s shooting him down left and right(*).
(*) Peet is much better served here than she was in a similar dynamic on “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.” There, it felt like she was giving into an irritating stalker. Here, the chemistry and mutual attraction are palapable, and the arguing is just part of the game.
For that matter, Ben also gets to be funny, and to take pleasure in the competition Pete so obviously presents. Instead of a strawman villain who makes the heroine look stupid for dating him, he’s a likable boyfriend for Alex and a worthy adversary for Pete.
The non-romantic portions of the show are more of a mixed bag. Joey King (she was Ramona in “Ramona and Beezus”) is a very natural child actor who works well with everyone. But as Pete’s father Walt, Jeffrey Tambor is asked to embody every tired stereotype about struggling actors; by far the weakest episode of the short season is the Walt-centric fifth installment. (Though the father/son dynamic between Walt and Pete has its own charms.)
Pete’s crew is an amusing bunch, including J.B. Smoove from “Curb Your Enthusiasm” as the electrician who keeps expecting Pete to screw up but is too afraid of leadership to strike out on his own, and Jesse Plemons from “Friday Night Lights”(**) as the new guy everyone is constantly hazing.
(**) Distraction: Pete’s last name is Riggins – the same as Taylor Kitsch’s character on “FNL” – and any scene where he’s referred to as Riggins while Plemons is on camera gets confusing.
The crew is bumbling enough that you can imagine the remodel going on for more than six episodes. Or, like Murphy Brown kept asking Eldin to paint new rooms in her house, Alex might start deciding the rest of the place needs to live up to the new kitchen. It’s a problem I’d like to see Quill have to solve. I fear that he won’t have that chance, but I had a good time watching these six and would welcome more.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org