Shows like The New Normal and Modern Family have made nontraditional families a staple of prime-time television, and those keeping track of that growing roster can add Ben and Kate to the list. The Fox sitcom, which premieres Tuesday at 8:30/7:30c, revolves around single mom Kate (Dakota Johnson) and her good-hearted slacker brother Ben (Nat Faxon), who moves in with his sister to help raise her young daughter Maddie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones).
"I think 'family' means a different thing now," Faxon tells TVGuide.com. "I think that's why Modern Family and those shows are successful, because they sort of tap into that, that everything looks a little different. There's a wider range, and it's more diverse in terms of how people are being raised."
Faxon, an Oscar winner for co-writing the script to 2011's The Descendants, has a background in improv comedy. This is his first foray into a leading television role. "I usually get brought in for, like, the third roommate or whatever, or the buddy of the super good-looking guy," he quips. "So, it was nice to be able to get something with little bit more meat on it."
That may be an understatement. Whether Ben and Kate resonates with viewers will hinge in large part on Faxon's performance as Ben. Depending on whom you ask, the character can come off as either obnoxious or endearing. Jones may be the child star on the show, but Ben is often the one who seems the most childlike. (Ads for the show feature the tagline "Who's raising who?")
"It's forgivable at times when things don't work out because I think he is so well-intentioned, and he has a lot of heart, and I don't think he ever means any harm or ever does anything where he's trying to hurt people or get into trouble," Faxon explains. "It's always with the best of intentions. Things just don't always work out the way they should, or successfully. On the show, he cares a lot about Kate and only wants the best for her. There's a lot to love and respect about that."
Still, viewers shouldn't be so quick to write Ben off. "These characters are more complex than just being your sort of cookie-cutter, oh, this is an Odd Couple relationship. He's all over the place, and she's got her stuff together," says Faxon. "It's much deeper than that. When you watch the show, you hopefully get that [Kate] is struggling just as much as he is. She's having a really tough time. She's clumsy when it comes to romance, and she doesn't have a lot of experience because she was raising a child and her focus has been on that for the past five, six years."
Faxon was drawn to the role because it defied the male/female pairings commonly seen on series television. "It's not your traditional romantic couple at the front of it, and you're never having to answer the question of, 'Why are these people together? They bicker a lot,'" he says. "Because of that brother/sister dynamic, it's sort of built in that you can fight and you can have that sort of roller coaster of emotions with each other. But in the end, you're still brother and sister and you're never going to go anywhere, and you just hopefully want the best for each other."
Faxon says he draws on his real-life relationship with his older sister to inform his performance. "I joke with my sister; we have a ton of fun together," he says. "We'll get on each other's nerves, and maybe there's an emotional moment that happens but in the end, you're related and blood is thicker than water. Obviously, whatever happens, I will always be there for her and support her and love her."
As with any brother-sister relationship, the heart of the show, according to Faxon and show creator Dana Fox, is the different personalities that emerge in individuals, even those who may have grown up in the same household. "Ben and Kate have sort of a dysfunctional and difficult childhood. There's flashbacks in the show that sort of illustrate that," he says. "They have to sort of help raise each other, and to teach each other lessons, because they didn't really have the best upbringing. ... I think the results of that childhood sort of show up in different ways for both of them. They both have shortcomings."
Faxon and Johnson have also developed a similar sibling-esque relationship on set. "We kind of like make fun of each other, annoy each other and get pissed at each other, but it's always forgiven or forgotten," he says. "It's been really fun and easy and organic to sort of create that with her."
The character of Ben is based on Fox's real-life brother, who's reportedly grown up a lot since the character was conceived. "I have met the real Ben Fox. And he is awesome," Faxon says. "He's definitely gotten his crap together. He's very successful now. He's got a family. He's completely living large.
"But ... the character was based on a younger version of him, and you certainly see glimpses of that personality when you hang out with him. He's really fun and spontaneous, and hilarious in the sense that it feels like you could be on any kind of crazy adventure with him and it would be OK. Despite the fact that you might get into a ton of trouble, and things might go horribly wrong, for some reason there's trust and little worry."
Ben and Kate airs Tuesdays at 8:30/7:30c on Fox.