Denis Leary’s ‘Benders’ Could Be Good If It Stopped Trying So Hard to Be Edgy
Denis Leary makes shows about men. Specifically, he makes shows about a certain type of urban, blue collar man, a man who has feelings but no vocabulary for them, a man who probably drinks too much (because of the feelings), a man who is angry and crass and generally piggish, but is also, on some level, a good person, or at least a person who is trying to be. If Judd Apatow, patron saint of sweetly goofy, charmingly stunted Golden Retriever men, offers one version of contemporary masculinity, then Leary offers its opposite. Unlike Apatow’s, Leary’s men do not wallow or obsess. They are not neurotic; they are neither freaks nor geeks. When they get into fistfights, they might win.
Which is all to say that Benders, IFC’s new comedy about four dudes whose lives revolve around a recreational hockey league called the Chubbys, is well within Leary’s wheelhouse. He is a master of grim macho angst, and he’s proved that vision can be funny, so Benders, executive produced by Leary and created by Leary’s longtime collaborators Jim Serpico and Tom Sellitti, is on familiar turf. The traumatized firefighters (Rescue Me) and bumbling EMTs (Sirens) have been replaced by buffoonish jocks — buffoonish in a gritty, aggressive, macho way, but still, buffoonish — and it’s fair to assume that we’re in for a dark, low-key ensemble comedy about male friendship from a creative team that’s long been obsessed with the particular pathos of the all-American man. (Also, dick jokes. So many dick jokes.)
The friends, in this case, are united not by profession, but by their die-hard commitment to a game they’re not particularly good at. Paul Rosenberg (Andrew Schulz) is well-meaning, responsible, and generally spineless. Anthony (Chris Distefano) is a lovable doofus who’s a little too dumb for his swagger. Dicky (Mark Gessner) is douchy and rich. Sebalos (Ruy Iskander)…well, Deadline promised he’d be the “slacker on a misguided search for his purpose in life,” and maybe that will become clear over the course of things that haven’t happened yet. There’s also Paul’s wife Karen (Lindsey Broad), whose main job so far is to refuse to have sex with him (marriage, amirite?), and whose secondary job is to be smarter than everyone else. Despite their requisite quirks, most of the characters — save for Paul (the lead) and Karen (a woman) — feel a bit interchangeable, but then, Benders isn’t really a show about individual men. It’s a show about a cartoon type of man: the sort of gentle macho-jerk who lives for an 8th-tier amateur hockey league called the Chubbys. It’s never made explicit why they’re friends because it doesn’t need to be. They’re all kind of the same.
In the series premiere, Paul’s filthy-but-beloved grandfather (Mark Margolis) tries to enlist his help committing suicide (“it’ll go a long way toward proving that you’re not a homo”), but ultimately finds a reason to live (“Rhonda Green’s juicy ass”). The episode sets the tone for the show: broad, crude. On the other hand, credit where credit is due, euthanasia is a bold opening. And there are a lot of individual elements that almost work: the team’s inept attempts to be helpful are pleasantly understated; Paul’s inability to successfully choke his grandfather without things taking a weird, sexual turn offers a kind of absurd physical comedy that could be delightful.
The second episode picks up where the first left off — with death. It’s a more conventional setup, but also a (slightly) more grounded one: Karen’s cousin (Jim Norton) dies of throat cancer (“You mean the pussy-eating cancer Michael Douglas was complaining about?” Paul asks, topically — it’s still the same show) and Paul schemes to reschedule the wake so he won’t have to miss the playoff game. Also, Karen tells her Chinese acupuncturist Sebalos’s racist joke and gets dumped as a client, which doesn’t feel like a particularly original plotline, but finally gives Karen something to do other than not mask her contempt for Paul.
It’s hard to complain about the unrelenting crassness of Benders without sounding like Tipper Gore, so I’d like to be very clear that I don’t think we should put parental warning labels on our CDs. But I do think that, in the case of Benders, the crassness can feel like a too-easy substitute for more reliable television staples, like character development and jokes. The absurd situations and gleefully gross dialogue (one elaborately anatomical proposal for Paul’s grandfather’s suicide involving grenades stands out) aren’t inherently unfunny, but they might work better, and land harder, if there were more substance underneath. Knowing the characters a little better could help clarify our relationship to the show, too. As it is, it’s never totally clear if we’re supposed to be laughing because, in spite of their doltishness, we empathize with them, or laughing because they’re dolts. But in the show’s quieter moments, when there’s nothing aggressively edgy going on, there are glimmers of what a more human Benders might look like. And you get the sense that that show could be a lot more fun.