Fairly Legal debuts tonight on USA at 10 p.m. Eastern.
One of the most important skills a TV producer can have is a strong sense of casting. A warm and welcoming cast will often keep viewers coming back, again and again, even if the show itself isn’t as strong as it might be. (Exhibit A: NCIS.) While the network is not 100 percent at casting, USA is a good example of this. Even the network’s weaker offerings boast strong actors, mugging their way through improbable situations and goofy storylines. For as much as I’m indifferent to the charms of, say, Psych, it’s evident that what keeps people coming back to that is the cast assembled. The jokes are fine, but they’d be nothing without the actors delivering them.
I feel vaguely similarly about Fairly Legal, a not-very-good show that’s improved immeasurably by the actors in it. In particular, Sarah Shahi, who was very good but rather wasted on the sadly canceled NBC detective show Life, proves an effervescent lead. For a show with as many quirky jokes and moments as this one has, you really need someone who can deliver all of that material without becoming grating, and Shahi is that person. There’s stuff here that is so blatantly stupid on its face that it shouldn’t work, but Shahi almost always kind of sells it. If you’re warmly disposed toward her, the show hopes, you’ll come along for the ride, as it figures out its growing pains. Similarly, the other cast members, particularly Battlestar Galactica veteran Michael Trucco, who does a good variation on the gruff guy Shahi’s character just can’t stay away from, seem to be having a lot of fun with the material. That sense of fun can be infectious, if you’re in the right mood, and the cast is very good at putting it over.
It’s good that they are, because the show itself is pretty bad. Shahi plays Kate Reed, a former lawyer turned mediator, who believes that the law should be a little more elastic, the better to deal with the fact that rigid, inflexible codes tend to bump up against people, who are far more malleable. So far, so good. But most TV drama is built around conflict, around people butting heads and grinding things out, so when the protagonist is someone who openly states that she hates conflict, you need a more creative protagonist than the quirky girl everybody falls instantly in love with. As played by Shahi (who’s eminently believable as someone you’d fall instantly in love with), this has its moments, but as scripted by creator Michael Sardo, there’s too much of an emphasis placed on goofy moments or abrupt, out-of-nowhere exposition. (Kate actually ends an early scene by blurting out, “Do something with my father’s ashes!” apropos of nothing.)
Sardo proves surprisingly adept at figuring out a variety of situations in which Kate can use her skills, but these scenes will need to do more work if the show isn’t going to feel like a long, conflict-management seminar. At best, the scenes where Kate figures out how to mediate disputes—the one unique thing the show has going for it, even if it seems like a potential drama-killer—are sketches, bits where characters are filled in quickly and Kate is able to suss out what everybody REALLY wants with seemingly supernatural skills. An early scene where Kate mediates her way out of a coffee shop hold-up is vaguely charming, if completely unbelievable, and it’s kind of fun to see her keep checking up on her coffee order while she’s trying to keep from getting everyone killed. But you soon realize that every mediation scene is going to play out exactly like this. Kate asks someone what they want. Then she asks another person what they want. Then, she works out a compromise. Potentially, this could be interesting, but Sardo, at least in the pilot, can’t figure out anywhere to go with it. All of these scenes play like repeats.
So Sardo, instead, makes the trappings around the show more of a traditional legal drama. Again, this might be OK if the traditional legal drama—involving Kate trying to save a young, Yale-bound man from going to jail after he was driving a car involved in a mysterious accident—weren’t so completely predictable and the characters involved in it weren’t such stock types. Similarly, the people working at the law firm where Kate sets up shop are standard legal show devices, from the nerdy young assistant who knows where everything is to Kate’s “wicked” boss, a woman around her age who just happens to be her step-mother and father’s widow, who is obviously a better friend to Kate than either woman would be willing to admit. Hell, there’s even a gruff, cranky judge who has no time for Kate’s shenanigans, and rather than develop the character, the producers have just cast Gerald McRaney and hoped for the best. This is all completely standard stuff, and it might be OK if there weren’t any other legal dramas on the air, but there’s actually a very good one (similarly with a female lead) over on CBS, and that show doesn’t reduce all of its storylines to simple good-vs.-evil riffs.
So Fairly Legal doubles down on quirk. Kate rushes around San Francisco, turning up late (and shot with Dutch angles) everywhere. She’s got everybody in her phone delineated by Wizard Of Oz characters, and when you haven’t seen who the Tin Man is just yet and she implores her ex-husband to have a heart, well, you can probably see where all of this is going. (In general, ring tone humor, which lots of shows rely on for both jokes and instant, lazy character development, needs to die.) Kate’s assistant, Leo, is really into a World Of Warcraft-esque game and dials up friends in his guild and talks to them like he’s his character. Kate puts on goofy glasses (that, admittedly, take on added significance at episode’s end), dances around, and just generally acts like the second coming of Ally McBeal USA so clearly hopes she is. She lives on a houseboat and flirts with the friendly Australian next door, for God’s sake.
This is to say nothing of the fact that the show, like many basic cable productions, just looks kinda cheap. There’s good San Francisco location work, for the most part (though some bits were filmed in Canada), but far too many scenes devolve into cutting between a close-up of Kate and a close-up of the clients she’s trying to mediate a dispute between. This has the effect of making it seem like nobody in the show is in the same room with each other, and even though this is a standard money-saving technique on television, it’s even more pronounced here. There’s a scene where Kate’s trying to keep a man who lost a diamond ring from suing others for $10 million, and it almost feels as though Kate, the man, and his girlfriend were all filmed on separate continents.
And yet I’ll probably watch at least a few more episodes of Fairly Legal. For as much as I worry it will limit drama, it might be nice to have a show that’s about trying to avoid conflict, instead of one about trying to provoke conflict. Shahi and Trucco are a lot of fun, and I like the overall story about Kate’s family (including Ethan Embry as her retired lawyer brother). Many of the pilot’s faults—while unforgivable—are the kinds of faults that would occur only in a pilot, like all of the awkward exposition. In short, there’s plenty of room here to grow and a cast that could be fun with the right material. But in the pilot, at least, there’s every indication that any of that growth is going to take a lot of work.