I owe a lot to David E. Kelley. “Picket Fences” was one of the first serial dramas I ever got hooked on in syndication. “Ally McBeal” and “The Practice” were both influential in my decision to go to law school, where I actually followed Kelley to his alma mater, where he would eventually speak at my graduation, encouraging my class to avoid the banality and soul-destruction of the corporate track. Actually, come to think of it, David E. Kelley probably owes me $100,000 in law school loan debt, thanks to that advice. Fucker.
With the exception of “Girls Club,” I have nevertheless been completely loyal to Kelley over the years. “Harry’s Law” may break that streak. Kelley has been writing legal dramas for so long now that the actual cases within episodes are easily borrowed from plot lines in past shows. Given the limited number of issues fit for television, I don’t begrudge the guy that, even if Kelley’s obsession with explaining jury nullification has gotten out of hand (this may be the third legal drama he’s began with a jury nullification episode). With a Kelley show, it’s always been about the characters trying those cases, and that’s where Kelley has consistently been the best, peaking in my opinion in his last legal drama, “Boston Legal,” featuring William Shatner’s Denny Crane and James Spader’s Alan Shore. In “Harry’s Law,” it feels like Kelley is trying to combine those two characters in a woman, Kathy Bates’ Harriet, a tough-nosed, gun-carrying liberal. Bates is a great actress, but Harry is not a good character.
Harry, burned out from decades of patent law and on a bender, is fired from her job, and on her way out, a man attempting to commit suicide inadvertently falls on her, knocking her unconscious. When she comes to, she’s run over by a car driven by another lawyer, putting her right back in the hospital. She’s uninjured both times. But, spurred on by her secretary (Brittany Snow), she tries to read meaning into the accidents. “Everything happens for a reason,” is an oft repeated line in the pilot episode.
Harry opens up a small law firm, where the man who tried to kill himself is her first client, and the lawyer that accidentally ran her over (Nate Corddry) is her second hire, after her secretary, who takes the shoes left behind in the office they leased and turns half of the place into a boutique shoe store.
It’s that kind of show. Kelley has for years managed the quirk with varying levels of success, hitting both his highest and lowest points in “Ally McBeal,” (a dancing baby? Really?) but in “Harry’s Law” it feels like he’s targeting that quirk toward the geriatrics that dominate the CBS audience. “Harry’s Law” is the “Designing Women” of legal dramas. Brittany Snow feels like that pretty blonde your grandmother wants you to marry, and so far, at least, the quirks and idiosyncrasies that have made Kelley’s best characters his best characters (Richard Fish!) are missing from this cast, although I will concede that Nate Corddry has a fairly dramatic — and entertaining — court appearance. It’s the show’s only real highlight.
It was a weak pilot episode, establishing the show as a safe, conservative one, home cooked “Matlock” without any of the smug, liberal self-righteousness I so loved about “Boston Legal” or the gritty, morally ambiguity of “The Practice,” or the feminist whimsy of “Ally McBeal.” There aren’t even any character outlets in “Harry’s Law” for Kelley’s soft-hearted chauvinists, and I wouldn’t expect a foul-mouthed serial killing Betty White to show up in this Kelley show, either.
But I’ll give it another episode or two, because Kelley is Kelley, Nate Corddry is great, and Kelley may yet populate the show with the kind of brilliant degenerates, assholes, and weirdos that have made his previous efforts so successful.
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