Sunday, January 30, 2011

USA's "Fairly Legal" is off to a strong start. Plus: David Brent meets Michael Scott


This promo sets out the basic premise of USA's new series Fairly Legal, about Kate Reed, a lawyer turned mediator who is surrounded by lawyers: the stepmother she hates (who has taken over direction of their law firm from Kate's just-deceased father), her brother, and her ex-husband, an assistant district attorney. The show airs Thursdays at 10pm ET, following Royal Pains.

"I was an attorney for five years. I quit to become a mediator. You want to know why? In court, somebody wins, but there's always a loser, and it doesn't necessarily have to do with who's right and who's wrong."
-- Kate Reed (Sarah Shahi), in the pilot of USA's Fairly Legal

by Ken

I'm afraid the above promo clip and the various others USA Network has prepared, while informative up to a point and accurate enough as far as they go, do much the same thing I'm about to do: make Fairly Legal seem more schematic and stereotyped than it actually plays, at least in the two episodes aired so far. (The fact that the website clips come freighted with 30-second "sponsored messages" may be reason enough to avoid them.) The premiere considerably exceeded my expectations, and the second episode went a long way toward cementing the show's hold on me.

For one thing, the main plot of the episode presented a provocative situation: A man convicted of robbery and murder at 18 is cleared after 22 years in prison. Kate, the mediator, is engaged by Justin (Michael Trucco), the assistant district attorney to whom she was married, to mediate a settlement between the state and the wrongly incarcerated man, Steve, played terrifically by Paul Schulze, known to some of us as Nurse Jackie's extramarital boyfriend Eddie. It's clear to everyone that Steve deserves compensation; the question is how much?

To Justin, it's clearcut. He wants the lowest-cost settlement the DA's office can get away with while also sparing his office the embarrassment of taking a wrongful-prosecution case to court. Kate, however, is horrified to find out, during the settlement conference, that Steve is so empty, at least outwardly, that she can't even find out from him what he wants, and she can't in good conscience settle the case without knowing what his story is. Eventually she gets him to open up, a little anyway.
STEVE: I had this dream. For 22 years I had this dream. That thing kept me alive. That I was exonerated. I was out. And then it happened. I got my dream. Except now I don't know what I want because everything I want is in the past. And the past is dead.
KATE: Before you were arrested, did you have an idea of what you thought your life would be like?
STEVE [shrugs]: Yeah.
KATE: Did it change? [He shakes his head.] Tell me about it.
STEVE: It's always late. Nighttime. [Pause.] I come home from a job that I don't really hate to a family that I really love. My son . . . wants to grow up to be a pro baseball player. My daughter is someone who I tell every day she's the prettiest girl in the room. And she is. And I have a wife who puts up with me, maybe even who loves me. And, uh, it's never gonna happen. Now, how . . . how do you put a price on that?

The show got at least me to think about what it means to have 22 of your 40 years taken away from you. Maybe I'm susceptible because I really am preoccupied by the whole question of how we use and misuse our time on earth, a question that's highlighted by this instance of someone who had those years taken away from him through no fault of his own.

I also tend to respond well to shows that treat their characters with basic respect. It's not hard to understand, for example, why Kate thinks of her stepmother, Lauren (Virginia Williams), as a monster, but at the same time the show makes clear that she isn't. Similarly, ex-husband Justin, far from being the pretty-boy stuffed shirt one might have expected, really believes in his job as a prosecutor: upholding the justice system in order to protect society from bad guys despite the considerable difficulties and obstacles. Kate, meanwhile, prizes actual justice above the orderliness of the justice system. This obviously puts them at odds over Steve's case.

Okay, it's a TV show, so it's hardly surprising that Kate and Justin (who turns out, when we see him shirtless, to be stuffing quite a lot in his shirt) are wildly hot, but both Sarah Shahi and Michael Trucco have a lot more going for them than their considerable physical attractiveness. Sensibly, the writing doesn't shy away from their sexual sizzle, acknowledging the attraction between the characters, which actually is far from just physical, while finding ways to make it clear why they're ex-spouses. Can't live without 'em, can't live with 'em, the way it happens so often happens in real life.

As usual with USA dramatic series there's a strong supporting cast, including Baron Vaughn as Kate's assistant, Leo, and Ethan Embry as Kate's brother, Spencer. Presumably Gerald McRaney will be back as the hard-assed judge who takes badly to Kate's disrespect for the law. And I've barely touched on the issues arising from the death of Kate's and Spencer's father, which shows signs of becoming steadily more rather than less complicated.

Gosh, I know the way I write about Fairly Legal makes it sound frightfully tedious, which again is a shame, because the show, created and produced by Michael Sardo, seems headed in promising directions, and confident about where it's going.


The opening scene of this week's episode of The Office

And an impromptu dialogue on the nature of comedy ensues. Left unanswered is the question of what the hell David is doing in Scranton. (Scranton???) He does seem eerily alert to even the humblest possible employment opportunities, though.

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At 6:56 PM, Anonymous Jeff said...

The line "All my dreams are in the past" strikes kinda close to home. I didn't spend what should've been my best 22 years in prison, but I'm a still-aspiring musician, and my tastes have always been, shall we say, "not what the kids really want to hear". Add to that being effectively shut out of a gay community with a chip on its shoulder about masculinity (I like my long-haired glam dudes, see), and there you go. But nobody did this to me; it's just the way the world turned out. All you can do is hope that you're wrong and that there's still at least something out there for you.

At 7:10 PM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Thanks for sharing that, Jeff. This is exactly what I'm talking about. Yes, the TV character had those 22 years taken from him forcibly and unjustly, but a lot of us (I'm reluctant to say "most of us," but I wonder) have big questions, rightly and wrongly, about how we've passed out time, and I think this scene between Kate and Steve gets at those issues in a very real way.



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