Two new legal dramas debuted in this past week, and in a great example of just how diverse these things tend to be, both pilots about females who have transitioned out of the sort of law practice which made them unhappy had storylines in which the lawyers had to get a young black man from a tough background out of doing time, because any such sentence would get them kicked out of college.
Harry’s Law is built around Kathy Bates, using her patented Regular Humanness to cast her someone who has been in the business of Boring Law for too long, and wants to be in the business of Exciting Law – not just Criminal Law, but TV-Style Criminal Law. And lucky for her, the world accommodates her desire. This comes from the David E. Kelley quirky law practice factory, and the pilot is focused on bringing on our quirky team of four, and establishing the things that officially make them a quirky law practice and shoe shop. Yes, that’s right, that’s the one official “here, it’s the practice and not just the people who are quirky”; the selling of shoes has much the same purpose as the introduction of the unisex bathroom onto Ally McBeal (minus, of course, the chance for every sensitive conversation to be heard… but you do get to learn about people’s tastes in shoes!)
Bates is convincing. Nate Corddry (now apparently Nathan) shows up as the talented young lawyer who is inspired by the happingness of it all, and he’s got a good face for it. But there’s not much sense that this will take us anywhere that is formatwise different from various shows that precede it. If you liked The Practice and Boston Legal and various other things, here’s more, and on the upbeat side of things. Not the worst thing to watch, but no great discovery either.
Meanwhile, over on basic cable’s USA Network, slightly new territory is being entered into in Fairly Legal, a drama built around an ex-lawyer who still works for her late father’s law firm, but as a mediator. That presents a couple of possible major twists. One is that it gets the show out of the courtroom climax – although the show still manages to spend time in the courtroom (poor Gerald McRaney got cast as a judge who speaks mainly in exposition, to let the world know what a mediator is). The other is that the ends are to be achieved not by having one side of a case win over the other, but by reaching a mutually beneficial understanding. That suggests that the arc of the stories may well have different paths than what we’re used to.
But with all that in place, the show gets in its own way. One of the problems is that it’s about gambits to lead to a happy solution, but those gambits can be unconvincing. There’s a point in the show where our spunky lead has to help an engaged couple across an emotional conflict, and the trick that she pulls only works because, well, the writer says it works. It is so unconvincing that her gambit would be effective, and the rather wooden way in which the characters involve state their feelings in exactly the manner that humans don’t just makes the unreality echo further.
The bigger problem is that the central character is apparently meant to be one of these abusive-to-those-around-her-but-forgivable-for-her-intent types, only they don’t give sufficient reason for forgiveness. She is dishonest, she is abusive to her assistant, she is vicious to her stepmother for no visible reason other than that the stepmother is more beautiful than she is and made the mistake of marrying her dad, she violates the law and a client’s privacy and uses the information she achieves that way to blackmail the client into following her path, she steals a man’s remains from his widow… sorry, this isn’t a Denny Crane, whose harshness had style to it, and wasn’t meant to be a hero. She’s a shmuck. Likability isn’t inherently necessary in a character, but it sure helps when they aren’t fascinating for other reasons. She’s damaged because her daddy died, and that isn’t enough to make her interesting.
If you could take these two shows and merge them, make Kathy Bates the one who turned mediator, you’d have a better show than either of them. As it is, they’ve ended up with one show that is occasionally entertaining, and one that is not.