Tuned In: Mixed verdict on TV's new legal dramas
Two new legal dramas premiere this week, and they both feel familiar although "Harry's Law" is a better kind of familiar because it's written by David E. Kelley, executive producer of "Boston Legal," "The Practice," "Ally McBeal" and "Picket Fences."
"Harry's Law" (10 p.m. Monday, NBC) is definitely one of the lesser works in the Kelley oeuvre, but it's better than, say, "Girls Club" (two episodes and done on Fox in 2002). At least "Harry's Law" brings with it the same current events legal sparring some viewers appreciated on "Boston Legal." Actually, "Harry's Law" brings a whole host of familiar tricks from Mr. Kelley's TV writer bag:
• A character with a tic (Paul McCrane's assistant district attorney repeats everything he says).
Starring: Kathy Bates.
• Eccentric visual sequences a la "Ally."
• Foul-mouthed old lady (charged with armed robbery).
• Self-described "cartoonish buffoon" lawyer (Christopher McDonald in episode two) most interested in self-promotion.
Kathy Bates ("About Schmidt") stars as gun-toting Harriet "Harry" Korn, a bored patent attorney who gets fired on the same day she's knocked down by an attempted suicide jumper (Aml Ameen) and hit by a car driven by a young lawyer (Nate Corddry, "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip") who then insists on helping her start her new storefront practice in an old shoe store. Harry's assistant, Jenna (Brittany Snow, "American Dreams"), insists on selling off the left-behind shoe inventory and christens the place Harriet's Law and Fine Shoes.
The show's high quirk factor can't disguise that "Harry's Law" lacks the camaraderie of Denny Crane (William Shatner) and Alan Shore (James Spader) that made "Boston Legal" so popular, but it does have a liberal crusader in Harriet who segues from patent law to criminal defense. She defends a college-bound African-American man with a drug habit in the first episode and an elderly robber in the second episode. (Scenes of defendants pleading their cases to Harry or thanking one of the lawyers tend to be disappointingly mawkish.)
What the show lacks in originality it makes up for in crisp, politically tinged dialogue. When a Chinese man in Harry's new, hardscrabble neighborhood runs up to her speaking Chinese on the street, she says, "You can't just bounce out into the street speaking a foreign language like that. If this was Arizona, they'd cart you away!"
The series shines brightest in the courtroom, where Mr. Kelley, a former lawyer, is comfortable playing both sides of an argument without resorting to creating a straw man. Not only does Harry mount a vigorous defense but also her new associate, Adam (Mr. Corddry), speaks excitedly in court, rattling off assorted legal principles in a stunning, extended verbal streak.
"Harry's Law" breaks no new ground and even feels a little tired compared to the programming on basic cable these days. But for fans of "Boston Legal" and Mr. Kelley's past law shows, "Harry's Law" offers more intriguing legal arguments and entertaining dialogue than many prime-time shows can muster.
USA's latest series, "Fairly Legal," is fairly entertaining in the same way all the network's "blue sky" shows can be. No heavy lifting required for viewers, but USA's shows are getting slightly more intricate as the network evolves its brand. "Fairly Legal" (10 p.m. Thursday) is not complicated or particularly well written by any stretch, but it is grounded in enough little details to give it a more polished veneer.
Starring: Sarah Shahi.
Kate Reed (Sarah Shahi) is a whirling dervish who left her job as a lawyer to become a legal mediator, much to the dismay of seemingly everyone around her. She's a crusader who fights for the little guy even when it's not in the best interest of the law firm that's run by her stepmother, Lauren (Virginia Williams), after the recent death of her father.
"Now that dad's gone, are you still my evil stepmother or just the evil managing partner?" smart-lipped Kate asks Lauren.
Kate IDs all her friends on her cell phone with ringtones associated with various "Wizard of Oz" characters -- Lauren is the Wicked Witch (natch), her geeky-cool assistant, Leo (Baron Vaughn), comes up as the Cowardly Lion -- and she even puts her mediation skills to use when the store she's in gets robbed. She ends up satisfying the robber with a jar of beef jerky and a case of light beer (would any self-respecting robber really end a stick-up in return for light beer?).
Kate's quirkiness extends to her home, which is her father's old boat. She sometimes shares her bed with her soon-to-be-ex-husband, Justin (Michael Trucco, "Battlestar Galactica"), a San Francisco assistant district attorney.
The fact that she's divorcing her husband is not played as something sad or disappointing. Instead it's set up as a bump in the road and not necessarily a permanent one unless the carefree Aussie (Ted Fellingham) whose boat is docked nearby complicates matters. No, her marriage isn't so much broken as it is waiting to be revived.
The 90-minute "Fairly Legal" pilot, written by series creator Michael Sardo, moves at breakneck speed and fairly effortlessly welcomes viewers into spastic Kate's world. It's not a bad place to visit -- but I probably won't be checking in on her on a regular basis.
First Published January 16, 2011 12:00 am