One of the fall’s most delightful new comedies, FOX’s “Ben and Kate,” which premieres Tuesday, Sept. 25, revolves around a pair of odd-couple siblings (Nat Faxon, Dakota Johnson) joined at the hip following a childhood that clearly was no bed of roses.
Forced by aloof parents to more or less parent each other, Ben and Kate Fox have spent their recent years living in different California cities. At the moment, Kate is working as a bar manager to support Maddie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones), her precocious daughter, whose unplanned arrival five years ago forced Kate to drop out of college just shy of graduation and put her life on hold, acting responsibly and following the rules, just as she has all her life.
That structured world gets turned upside down in the series premiere with the arrival of irrepressible big brother Ben, who needs to crash on her couch for a few days while he prevents a woman he loves from marrying another man, but it’s not long before he starts to notice danger signals when it comes to kid sister’s latest beau (guest star Jon Foster).
The cast also includes the always-effervescent British comedy star Lucy Punch as BJ, Kate’s British best friend who is always ready to provide dubious romantic advice and even shadier babysitting services, and Echo Kellum as Tommy, Ben’s frequent partner in a long-running series of pranks and nutty schemes. Make no mistake, however, it’s the warm, unforced chemistry between Faxon and Johnson that powers this engaging family comedy.
If it all feels authentic, it should. Series creator and executive producer Dana Fox based the central relationship in large part on her own real-life connection to her older brother, a free spirit who also happens to be named Ben Fox.
“I’ve gotten to know the real Ben Fox and spend time with him, and certainly I think the character was based much more on his earlier years than now,” Faxon, who won an Oscar last February for co-writing the screenplay to “The Descendants,” tells Zap2it. “He’s this really successful guy now, but you can sense his energy, which is very infectious, and you can sense his willingness to take risks. When you spend time with him, you feel like you could get into a lot of trouble, although you don’t have to worry about it. You just have to take the jump. And that’s fun.”
The actor, who’s undertaking his first series lead here after years of toiling away in smaller roles, says he responded to the script as soon as he read it.
“I was drawn to the heart of the show, something that often gets lost in sitcoms these days, where there’s a quick moment in the third act where there’s a heartfelt moment, but then things push right over it,” he says. “I felt like that heart was present from the start and continues to be in the scripts that are being written now. I think that makes the show unique and also will help people empathize with us, because it’s both funny and emotional.”
Both Faxon and Jones already had been cast as Ben and Maddie when Johnson — the daughter of Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson — was sent a copy of the pilot script and summoned to an audition, where things almost instantly clicked into place.
“Nat and I just get along really well, and we have the sort of sibling relationship thing in real life, so it just works,” Johnson says. “I think it translates really well. I read the script one night, went in the next day and read for them and was offered the part by evening. It’s really bizarre, because you hear these stories but they never happen [to you]. And this all happened in less than 24 hours.”
Johnson says she feels very lucky to be playing a single mother who is clever and sane, but also isn’t afraid to cut loose.
“We wanted to make it clear that Kate is smart and is a good mom, but she’s also not afraid to look stupid or be goofy and funny and klutzy,” the actress says. “Sometimes you see women on television who present this ultimatum for girls, that they have to be a certain way, and I want Kate to be accessible to everyone. I want women to feel that they know someone like Kate. I want them to understand her.
“Kate naturally has larger dreams than bartending. I think you’ll be seeing more about that.”
“Dakota is so willing to put herself out there without worrying about how she looks, and she’s not extremely sensitive so you can joke and jab at each other, riff and be silly and not worry about it,” Faxon adds. “That just makes things so much easier when you are trying to play a brother and sister on camera.”