Those brilliant engineers in the USA Network Show Laboratory have invented an airtight formula for TV escapism. First, cast a talented actor with a checkered TV past – Matthew Bomer, Jeffrey Donovan, and Mark Feuerstein had all starred in their fair share of failed TV series pre-White Collar, Burn Notice, and Royal Pains. Second, give the actor a vintage TV profession – cop, lawyer, doctor, spy – but sprinkle in some cable-ready eccentricity. Finally, send them to a glossy locale populated almost entirely by attractive people and wisecracking sidekicks, and voila: Brain candy! At first blush, the new legal dramedy Fairly Legal seems like a perfectly prefabricated USA treat, but the season premiere took some interesting chances … although I’m not sure the whole package is there quite yet.
First, the good stuff. Series star Sarah Shahi is a pretty wonderful actress. She was good on the earlier seasons of The L Word. She had one of the great Sopranos guest-star appearances (playing a redemptive Vegas stripper). Most recently, she had a nifty, shortlived cop show on NBC with the unmarketable name Life. As Legal’s lead character, Kate Reed, Shahi somehow makes you believe that the woman is simultaneously an anxious wreck and a brilliant mediator.
Actually, Kate’s profession is another high point of the show: Basing an entire series on the process of mediation is, if nothing else, a cool twist on the legal formula. At the end of the episode, as Kate was talking to her dead father’s ashes, she actually outlined a pretty complex view of the law: Whereas her attorney father believed wholly in the letter of law, she believes that “right” comes out of a back-and-forth human interaction. Fairly Legal has a clear perspective on mediation: It’s not just there as window-dressing.
Unfortunately, the other elements of the season premiere were sort of rickety. For one thing, the show can’t seem to decide whether it wants to be a somber drama or a zippy legal quirkfest. Scenes of Kate racing in and out of a courtroom and actually being put in contempt of court by a judge who despises her seemed to come out of a sitcom. But the episode had other elements – a wrongfully-accused Yale-bound teenager from the ghetto, an extended meditation on Kate’s relationship with her dead father – that seemed to come out of a much older, more straightforward show about “Lawyers Who Really Care.”
The show had enough eccentric elements (like the constant references to The Wizard of Oz) to make me want to take another look. However, as a Bay Area native, I have to note that the show’s portrayal of San Francisco is extremely silly – except for the constant (greenscreened) shots of the Transamerica Pyramid and an out-of-nowhere cross-dressing plot twist, the show might as well be set in Anytown, USA. (Or, more to the point, Vancouver.) That’s kind of a bummer, especially considering that fellow USA show Burn Notice and In Plain Sight get so much mileage out of their settings (Miami and Albuquerque, respectively).
PopWatchers, did you check out Fairly Legal?
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