We finally had our first network cancellation of the fall season last week, when ABC dropped the ax on “Manhattan Love Story.” Had the Alphabet waited one more week, we'd have made it through the first season in a while where all the new fall shows got to debut before one was canceled. But that was not to be, and instead we have our final new network fall show (with plenty more on the bench for midseason, or whatever the broadcast nets are willing to call it these days) coming up this week, along with a new cable comedy. Both, oddly, feature Jack McGee in a supporting role (the result of cable and network shows often filming on different schedules), and that – along with the fact that I don't feel strongly about either one at this stage – is enough excuse to put them together in the same post for a few quick thoughts on both CBS' “The McCarthys” and USA's “Benched.”
“Benched” debuts tonight at 10:30, and it's our second new sitcom of the month to feature a “Happy Endings” alum. In this case, it's Eliza Coupe playing Nina, an ambitious corporate lawyer who throws a career-ruining tantrum when she's passed over for promotion, and who winds up working as a public defender when all her other options dry up. It's an unapologetic star vehicle for Coupe – she's in nearly every scene of the first two episodes, and while the third has a subplot about her male coworkers enjoying a night out together, they are frequently talking about her (just like how Homer Simpson wanted Poochie to be treated) – and one that allows her to move a bit beyond the terrifying overachiever type she played so well on “Scrubs” and “Happy Endings.” (Nina is basically Jane Kerkovich, but a badly humbled Jane.) She gamely and nimbly does a lot of physical comedy and is willing to be the butt of many jokes, and it's clear watching the first three episodes that Coupe is a star.
The show around her – created by Michaela Watkins and Damon Jones, and run by “Party Down” vet John Enbom – feels a bit skimpy at this point, though. Jay Harrington, often so good as a genial straight man (see “Better Off Ted”), is miscast as the charming office burn-out (think Greg Kinnear in “Rake”), and most of the other lawyers – played by a good cast of comic actors including Oscar Nunez, Maria Bamford and (as the boss) McGee – don't even register as characters in the early going. After Coupe, the actor who makes the biggest impression is Fred Melamed, who enjoys himself in the first episode playing a cynical judge amazed by Nina's incompetence in her new job. Good as Coupe is, the rest of the ensemble needs to come into sharper focus in a hurry for most of the comedy to work. But she's a strong foundational piece.
McGee is a recurring guest on “Benched,” and a regular on “The McCarthys” (Thursday at 9:30), a sitcom based on the family of creator Brian Gallivan. Tyler Ritter (brother of Jason, son of John) is the Gallivan stand-in, a young gay man who's never felt like he belongs in his very traditional, sports-obsessed Boston clan, McGee and Laurie Metcalf are the parents, Joey McIntyre (bringing CBS 2/5 of the way towards an all-NKOTB lineup) and Jimmy Dunn his jock older brothers, and Kelen Coleman as his sister.
It's a very solid cast. Metcalf is a pro's pro, McGee a good match for her, McIntyre has made one of the more adept singer-to-sitcom transitions, and Coleman's finally on a show that seems to want her. (On “The Newsroom,” she was there to be patronizingly told she's smarter and hotter than she thinks she is, while the makers of “Super Fun Night” looked at their awful ABC pilot and decided Coleman was somehow the one element that needed to be replaced.) Ritter, like his brother, has his dad's innate likability but (also like his brother) doesn't seem to have the anarchic comic spirit that went along with it. (They seem, like Jay Harrington, to be perfectly nice straight men, where John Ritter was a force of nature. Though maybe if they were given the chance to fall over couches constantly, they could do the same.)
As for the show itself, “The McCarthys” would have seemed progressive a few decades ago but now feels pretty tame. The pilot's plot involves the family throwing a party to keep Ritter from moving to Rhode Island (they're so provincial that it feels to them like he wants to move to Tibet), and to prove how open-minded they are about him being gay, they invite a member of their church choir who's also gay – the only thing he and Ritter have in common. There's also a funeral where people behave inappropriately, and a whole lot of cross-promotion for “The Good Wife.” The pilot (the only episode I've seen, despite the very late premiere) is ultimately painless, and at press tour, Gallivan seemed like he had many funny and specific stories to tell about his real family, even if the version presented in the first episode plays very broad and familiar.
GRADES: “Benched” B- / “The McCarthys” C+
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com