Benders can be described using so many metaphors that it’s difficult to choose just one. It’s Entourage on ice skates. It’s what would happen if the loudmouth from your local Buffalo Wild Wings morphed into a TV show. Actually, given its preoccupation with puck-and-smack talk, Benders feels, above all else, like the cobbled-together outtakes from a 20-year-old Kevin Smith movie. That “20-year-old” descriptor is especially apt here. There’s something about the unglossy, basic vibe of Benders, its cast of largely unknown actors, and the way it swims in so much retrograde testosterone that smacks of a throwback to the ’90s, when movies like Clerks and Swingers brought a freshly blunt approach to the hangin’-with-the-boys genre. Benders, which debuts tonight on IFC, seems eager to recapture the spirit of films like that, but with four thinly sketched main characters and jokes that are unfunny at best and outmoded at worst, it can’t. It’s so not money and it doesn’t even know it.
To clarify because, again, all the hockey jerseys may imply otherwise: This is not a Kevin Smith production. Benders was co-created by Jim Serpico and Tom Sellitti (co-executive producers of Maron and Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll), who are also the co-writers and, along with Denis Leary, executive producers. In the three episodes provided to critics in advance, Serpico and Sellitti don’t just announce that this is going to be a show about a bunch of dudes who talk about dude things while doing dude stuff, they double down on that idea with nearly every detail. The word “bro” is used often and unironically. One of the four leads, Dickie Litski (Mark Gessner), is stuck with the nickname Shitski, because obviously that’s hilarious. The guys’ adult-league hockey team is sponsored by an establishment called Uncle Chubbys, which means that the Benders posse refers to their squad as — I swear on a case of Miller High Lifes, this is true — “the Chubbys.” The whole enterprise is about as subtle as a teenage boy’s power-belch.
Even if its man show-ishness wasn’t so overwhelming, Benders would still suffer from other problems, including a tendency to explore dark comedy in what comes across as a misguided attempt to be daring. In the first episode, Paul (Andrew Schulz), the closest thing this series has to a protagonist, must decide whether to kill his grandfather (the great Mark Margolis, also known as Hector Salamanca from Breaking Bad) at the old man’s request. (Grandpa specifically asks to be “checked out by Sunday” so he won’t have to suffer through another New York Jets loss, which, in all fairness, is actually kind of funny.)
Serpico and Sellitti are obviously going for uproariously tasteless with this storyline — at one point, Paul preps for the grandpop-strangling by practice-choking his wife, with her consent, which only sexually arouses him — but the whole scenario plays out with such uninventive crassness that it lands flat and leaves a bad aftertaste. The same issues plague the third episode, in which Anthony (Chris Distefano, the meatiest meathead of the bunch) starts playing for a team dominated by Dominicans and acting like he’s one of them, prompting the other three to “find God” so they can suit up with a group of devout, hockey-playing Christians. No one in the episode even bothers to make a “Father, Son and Holy Ghost” hat trick joke, which, frankly, seems like a huge missed opportunity on a show about hockey.
Not surprisingly, women are given short shrift on Benders. Paul’s wife Karen (Lindsey Broad) does things that are just so typical of females, like complaining when her husband invests in a racehorse without her knowledge, or getting mad when he takes a drunken piss in the middle of their bedroom. (The old ball and chain, man. I swear.) Then there’s Molly (Gia Crovatin), the quintessential Cool Girl who joins the Chubbys in episode five as their goalie. When Shitski — the least-likable character, but also the most fully formed and interesting one — questions whether she can handle playing a men’s game even though she played Division I hockey in college, his buddies rightly upbraid him for being a jackass. That’s to the writers’ credit. But they immediately forfeit any bonus points they’ve earned when, seconds later, Anthony imposes a rule that no one on the team is allowed to “bang” Molly, implying that as long as one of them were willing, then of course this extremely hot puck-saver would be totally into it, too.
It turns out that Molly is not what she seems, in that, among other things, she gets a serious charge out of taking nice, long whiffs of recently used athletic cups. Which, come to think of it, is yet another apt metaphor for Benders… a weekly half-hour of inhaling testicular sweat. What, you were expecting something more nuanced and intelligent from this particular IFC series, possibly even a TV Slap Shot for the modern era? Well, forget it, Shitski. It’s Bro-town.