Snuck onto the NBC schedule just as the 2011-2012 TV season enters its final months, the new romantic comedy Bent, which premiered last night with back-to-back episodes, is at once both utterly generic and kind of pleasant. The premise is Rom-Com 101: a cocky, handsome n'er-do-well contractor, Pete (David Walton), is hired to renovate the home of an uptight, beautiful divorcee, Alex (Amanda Peet). What happens next -- the erotically-charged bickering, the lingering glances, the gradual thawing of icy tensions -- is so familiar, even Alex and Pete seem to realize that they're being set up for their professional relationship to take a turn for the personal. At least the predictability of watching this routine scenario play out is somewhat offset by the general likability of the supporting cast -- which includes such experienced comic ringers as Jeffrey Tambor and JB Smoove -- and, to a lesser extent, the stars themselves. Individually, Peet and Walton are only okay, but together they make an appealing comic (if not necessarily romantic) duo. Given the strength of the casting -- and the fact that Season 1 only consists of six episodes -- we'll likely stick with Bent for the duration. Still, we'd like the show more if it would make one or more of the following five improvements:
1. Keep Things Platonic
Obviously this is already a lost cause, since the whole show is about watching the sparks that fly between this odd couple burst into eternal romantic flame. Still, the fact remains that we like Pete and Alex so much more as unlikely pals than as even-more-unlikely lovers. In their best moments together, Peet and Walton brought to mind the terrific relationship that Murphy Brown enjoyed with her own oddball home renovator, Eldin Bernecky, in the great early years of that sitcom. Candice Bergin and Robert Pastorelli had a wonderful rapport together and never had to be saddled with any of the usual "will they or won't they" nonsense that often threatens to drag Bent down.
2. More Landry!
By which we mean more Jesse Plemons, who played the winning field goal-kicking, Tyra-seducing, rapist-murdering Landry Clarke for five seasons on the late, great football drama Friday Night Lights. Here, Landry -- Plemons! We mean Plemons! -- plays Gary, the newest member of Pete's three-man construction team. While he didn't have much to do or say last night, we hope the Bent writers take him off the bench in future episodes and allow him to execute some great comic plays.
3. Lose Ben
Every romantic comedy needs an obstacle that blocks the designated lovers from getting together... at least for a little while. In Bent, that obstacle is Ben (Matt Letscher), who made his debut in the second episode. Where Pete is a walking disaster area, Ben has his shit together -- he's a surgeon, he's well-off and he can focus with laser-like intensity on the things that he wants. Unfortunately, he's also a total drag as a character, sucking the energy out of every scene he appears in. We don't really want Alex ending up with Pete, but we definitely don't want her ending up with Ben.
4. Go Against Type on Occasion
Perhaps the main reason why Bent's core ensemble clicks so nicely together is that they've all had lots of experience playing these same roles elsewhere. Alex, for example, is a variation on the neurotic studio exec that Peet portrayed on Studio 60, while Tambor plays Pete's dad James as a less destructive version of the Bluth family patriarch, George Sr. While it's always fun to see good actors working in their comfort zones, Bent might generate bigger laughs -- instead of just mild chuckles -- if the cast were challenged by the material a bit more rather than just going through the same familiar motions.
5. Just Try Harder
Not every sitcom has to aspire to redefine the genre like Arrested Development or The Office did back in the day. But the best comedies put more effort into exploring and developing new comic possibilities than Bent seems willing or able to do. The show also doesn't seem all that interested in developing a distinct personality to make it stand out from the crowded primetime line-up; for example, as bad as Two and a Half Men usually is, it's also true that there's nothing on TV quite like it (a fact that we should perhaps all be grateful for). On the other hand, there's a lot of well-meaning, mostly forgettable comedies like Bent around (Mike & Molly, anyone?) and we need a better reason to stick with the series in the unlikely event it returns for a sophomore season.
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