I don’t love every original series on the USA Network. Even some of those that I do like (such as ‘Psych’ or ‘Burn Notice’) don’t necessarily earn regular recordings on my DVR. Nonetheless, the network generally maintains a baseline level of quality in its original programming. As such, I’m inclined to give any new show the benefit of the doubt. Last week, USA premiered its new drama ‘Fairly Legal’. While I don’t think this is a breakout success, it has potential.
I’ll be perfectly honest up front – the main reason I decided to give this show a shot is for star Sarah Shahi, who heated up TV screens as Damian Lewis’ original partner in the first season of the underrated and short-lived NBC series ‘Life’. (I understand that she was also in ‘The L-Word’, but I never saw that one.) Unfortunately, a very-visible unscripted pregnancy forced her to leave partway through the second season. While Gabrielle Union made a fine replacement, the show’s chemistry wasn’t the same, and the ratings took a tumble that soon led to cancellation.
Now Shahi is back on TV as San Francisco-based lawyer-turned-mediator Kate Reed in ‘Fairly Legal’. (Trivia note: The show’s title was originally going to be ‘Facing Kate’, until someone at the network realized how lame that sounded.) Kate comes from a family of lawyers, and practiced law herself for a few years until deciding that she prefers conflict resolution to courtroom battle. In an early, gimmicky scene in the ‘Pilot’ episode, she demonstrates her talent when she gets stuck in the middle of a stick-up at a coffee shop. The robber and the shop-owner square off, each refusing to yield to the other, until Kate talks them both down and negotiates a compromise. The robber will get away with $50 worth of beer and beef jerky that only cost the owner $17 wholesale, and nobody gets hurt.
Kate’s recently-deceased father was the head of a major law firm. She’s living in his boat, and working at the firm under the direction of her stepmother, who’s the same age that she is. She isn’t pleased about this. In the ‘Pilot’, she juggles three cases: a negotiation between a father and son over control of their family business; a young kid about to be sent to prison for a crime he wasn’t responsible for; and a frivolous lawsuit between an engaged couple and the vendors who ruined their perfect proposal. This is an awfully lot of plot to be crammed into one episode, even one that runs an extra ten minutes over the usual hour length.
‘Fairly Legal’ isn’t groundbreaking television. It’s a lawyer show that isn’t strictly about a lawyer, but still looks like it will follow a lot of the familiar tropes of the genre. Like all of USA’s series, it’s really a quirky character piece. To that end, Shahi is very appealing in the lead. She’s bright and spunky, and has a cutesy thing going on with her cell phone where all of her contacts and ringtones are based on ‘Wizard of Oz’ characters. She tends to run her mouth when she shouldn’t (“I’m always honest. It’s my greatest flaw,” she explains), which gets her in hot water with a cranky judge played by Gerald McRaney. And she also has a Will-they-or-won’t-they? relationship with her ex-husband (Michael Trucco, who was Beckett’s boyfriend on ‘Castle’ last season). Nothing about the show reinvents the wheel, but I can see it doing well as part of USA’s lineup.