This is the time of year when networks begin clearing out old inventory in preparation for the new round of delicious treats they will bring us in the fall. Not that I'm against networks debuting shows all year long -- anything to avoid the September train wreck -- but sometimes, you look at a mid-season show and instantly know why it wasn't on the fall schedule (I'm looking at you, "Work It"). By spring, parts of the broadcast-TV schedule look like the Island of Lost Toys; shows that didn't find strong advocates at the network or favorable slots for their debuts wander onto the schedule almost tentatively, hoping not to get run over by the trucks that are March Madness and various reality franchises.
But sometimes a lack of buzz works in a show's favor; "House," "Parks and Recreation," "Grey's Anatomy" and "Happy Endings" are just a few of the mid-season programs that left the gate with modest expectations and used their first seasons to make swift and successful course corrections. It's hard to know whether "Bent" (9 p.m. ET Wednesday, NBC) will get to enjoy the kind of long-term success some of those shows have had, but it would be a mistake to count this scruffy little comedy out. It's really charming.
"Bent," a goofy romantic comedy about an amusingly irresponsible contractor and his uptight client, is a little stiff in its early outings, but it loosens up over its first half-dozen episodes. As is the case with contractor Pete Riggins (David Walton), "Bent" grows more shaggily endearing over time, and if you're already a fan of the goofy/sharp vibes on display in "Happy Endings," "Cougar Town" and "Suburgatory," this new NBC ensemble comedy should be right up your alley.
There are many other things to recommend about it, but the best thing about "Bent" is Walton's thoroughly wonderful performance as Riggins, an enjoyably rogueish construction guy who gets a kitchen-rehab job from Alex (Amanda Peet) because he's cheap, not because he's especially good. Pete arrives for work with a motley crew of subcontractors who excel at goofing off, and his father, Walt (Jeffrey Tambor), is an aging actor who sponges off his son when not starring in vanity-driven projects about postal workers.
As a single mother with her own family issues -- her husband went to the slammer for dirty financial dealing -- Alex has a lot on her plate, but over time, Pete's ad hoc family becomes hers as well, and after a while, no one really keeps track of how the new kitchen is coming along.
Truth be told, in the early going, it's not that easy to believe that Pete is all that attracted to Alex, who is off-puttingly hard-edged at times, and not necessarily in a "she doth protest too much" sort of way. And on occasion, the show makes Alex's other suitor, Ben (Matt Letscher), a little too douchey; the competition between Pete and Ben would be more believable if the deck weren't so stacked in favor of the surfing contractor with the aging truck and the groovy stubble.
But one of the good things about "Bent" is that NBC is showing two episodes every Wednesday during the next few weeks. By the sixth episode, the chemistry between Pete and Alex seems much more tangible, and by that point, we've seen enough of Pete's issues (which include his recovery from a gambling addiction) to understand why she still remains a little hesitant to dump Ben, a doctor, in favor of the guy with an endless array of ragged T-shirts and dippy ex-girlfriends.
Yet "Bent" wisely doesn't put all its eggs in the Pete-Alex basket; Pete's team, which consists of the excitable Clem (J.B. Smoove), the naive Gary (*Jesse Plemons) and the stolid Vlad (Pasha Lychnikoff) is quite amusing on its own; as the new guy on the construction crew, Gary, is incessantly hazed, and Plemons endures the good-natured taunting with wonderfully low-key stoicism. Walt, who crashes at Pete's scruffy Venice, Calif., pad provides many opportunities for Jeffrey Tambor to play the kind of self-involved, hammily amusing characters that he does so well. He reminds me a little of Jane Lynch's character on "Party Down": He's forever recalling the recurring role he had on various '70s procedurals and soaps -- and of course, this is information that only he finds interesting.
[*By the way, if you're also a "Friday Night Lights" fan, you may find yourself repeatedly stumbling over the fact that Jesse Plemons, a.k.a. "FNL's" Landry, is on a show alongside a character named Riggins. And yet no one plays football. Weird!]
I can't quite figure out what NBC is doing with "Bent" -- by showing two episodes each week, is the network burning this comedy off and more or less betting on its failure? I hope not. Part of me wonders if "Bent" will be a footnote on Walton's resume if and when he finds a successful vehicle -- and if "Bent" doesn't make it, he absolutely needs to star in another comedically-tinged vehicle very soon -- but I'd rather assume that this show has a chance at making it. Far too many romantic comedies in the movie realm seem to be about punishing successful women, and while Alex and Pete certainly learn from each other, everybody on this show is believably flawed.
More to the point, I absolutely don't believe NBC will come up with any comedies that are better than this in the fall. The network shouldn't be cavalier with half-hours that work as well as this one does.