Legal dramas are a dime a dozen on almost every network on television, and only about half of them have ‘Law & Order’ in the title. For a new one to stand out among the clutter, it needs to put a unique and (hopefully) interesting spin on the old familiar formula. The twist behind the USA network’s new series ‘Suits’, which premiered last Thursday, is that it’s a legal drama about a guy who’s not really a lawyer. Yeah, that seems like a stretch to me too.
Honestly, the first time I heard the show’s premise, I thought it sounded pretty stupid. The generic title (a last-minute change from the even more generic ‘A Legal Mind’) didn’t help matters. But it’s the summer, and I’ll give just about anything a shot. (Don’t tell anyone, but I’ve seen more than one episode of ‘The Nine Lives of Chloe King’! Crap, did I really just admit that?) Anyway, in this case, I’m kind of glad I did, because it’s actually not half bad.
Here’s the gist of it: 20-something slacker Mike Ross has an eidetic memory and a gift for the law. He at one time really wanted to be a lawyer. The problem is that some screw-ups in his youth and a criminal record have prevented him from passing the “character and fitness” requirement for becoming an attorney. So, he makes a few bucks by taking law school exams for other people and getting them the grades they want. On a dare, he even passed the bar, without ever attending a single day of law school himself.
Mike needs $25,000 fast to pay for his grandma’s nursing home. His buddy is a drug dealer (and the cause of one of those screw-ups from his youth), who convinces Mike that he can get some easy money by making a drop at a hotel for him. All he has to do is put on a suit (to avert suspicion), walk into a hotel with a briefcase full of pot, go to the right room, and walk out with a briefcase full of cash.
What Mike doesn’t know, and his friend finds out too late to warn him, is that this is really part of a police sting operation. But Mike’s a smart kid and senses that something is wrong as he approaches the room. So he walks right past and heads for the stairwell. The undercover cops (one pretending to be a bell boy) suspect him anyway and give chase, but Mike dodges them by ducking into a conference room that just so happens to be hosting interviews for a law firm.
Harvey Specter (Gabriel Macht, who must feel very fortunate to still be getting work after ‘The Spirit‘) is a slick, smart-mouthed attorney and the top “closer” at his firm. He’s been required to interview for a new junior associate, but dreads the prospect because he hates the kiss-ass Harvard douches who apply – even though he used to be one himself. The interviews all go terribly, until Mike walks in. Mike puts on no pretense of what he’s doing. He tells Harvey everything about why he’s really at the hotel and why he walked into the room. Harvey’s impressed by the kid’s forthrightness, enough to not rat him out to the cops, but of course he has to get back to the business of interviewing the Harvard weenies. And that’s when Mike dazzles him by reciting chapter and verse from the law manual on Harvey’s desk.
Harvey’s a pretty cocky guy, and he likes the idea of doing something reckless. So he decides to hire Mike with a $25,000 signing bonus. But the kid will have to convincingly fake being a Harvard grad. Harvey puts him on a plane to Boston so that he can take a campus tour and memorize everything he sees. He also makes Mike promise never to associate with the drug dealer friend again, and tells him to buy some decent suits, because the one he has is an embarrassment.
I know what you’re thinking. This sounds like a terrible, terrible idea that will almost certainly lead to Harvey being disbarred. And maybe that’s true in the real world, but this is television. Plausibility aside, once you get past the premise, the show is well acted (Gina Torres from ‘Firefly’ also shows up as Harvey’s superior) and has some pretty sharp writing. Mike and Harvey have a good dynamic. Harvey’s the slick shyster who only cares about winning, while Mike tries to drag some humanity out of him. Mike’s need to live a dual life and cover up his past should lead to some good dramatic tension. Already, Harvey’s rival Louis, the office dickhead, has made a point of making sure that Harvey’s new hire fails somehow. That naturally means random drug testing at inopportune moments.
For Mike’s first assignment, Harvey pawns off a pro bono sexual harassment case on the junior associate. The solution to this actually turns out to be pretty clever. The scummy boss being sued hires an actress to pretend to be a former victim who will waste Mike’s time, so that his attorney can later discredit her story and break the whole case apart. What I like about this is that Harvey is the one to figure it out, not Mike. By television convention, you expect the wunderkind savant to catch the clues that everyone else misses and save the day. But no, he’s pretty easily duped, because he still has a lot to learn about being a lawyer. Harvey has to sweep in and clean up the mess.
The ‘Pilot’ episode runs an extra long 82 minutes (with commercials). Perhaps that’s too long. The syndicated reruns will no doubt trim that down to a regular hour, and I’m not sure that it will lose too much. Regardless, the show held my attention and was a lot better than I expected it to be. There’s a new episode tonight, and I’ve set it to record. This could be a keeper.