Watching the two-hour pilot episode of NBC’s “The Firm” (Sunday at 9 p.m.), my mind was filled with many questions, such as:
* What are the odds that popular early ’90s legal thrillers “Presumed Innocent” and “The Firm” would both get made-for-TV sequels within a month of each other?
* Why has NBC – which already has “Parenthood,” recently flopped with “Prime Suspect” and has new series based on “The Munsters,” “Romancing the Stone” and Hannibal Lecter, among others, in development – turned into the spin-off network?
* Why not just remake the original John Grisham story with tweaks for an ongoing series rather than making it a 10-years-later sequel where Mitch McDeere again joins up with a law firm that is secretly up to no good, making him into the John McClane of the legal world?
* Are Josh Lucas, Molly Parker, Callum Keith Rennie and Juliette Lewis the exact people I’d cast to replace, respectively, Tom Cruise, Jeanne Tripplehorn, David Strathairn and Holly Hunter? And if this were a remake rather than a sequel, who would be the 2011 equivalent of Wilford Brimley circa 1993?
* Why is NBC debuting this show with a two-hour pilot and not on its regular night (it’ll air Thursdays at 10, replacing “Prime Suspect”) when the networks haven’t had much commercial success with two-hour pilots in a long time?
Mainly, I asked myself these questions and more because two hours (90 minutes without commercials) is an awfully long time to watch a pedestrian TV legal drama that carries a vague resemblance to a movie and book I kind of remember enjoying a few decades ago.
It’s been 10 years since the events of the original story, and Mitch (Lucas), wife Abby (Parker), daughter Claire (Natasha Calis), brother Ray (Rennie) and secretary Tammy (Lewis) have recently left the witness protection program and set up shop in Washington, D.C. Where Mitch was once a young go-getter specializing in financial law, he’s now a champion for the little guy who takes on criminal defense cases and longshot civil suits. (Think Bobby Donnell from “The Practice” with less shouting.) Recasting aside, he so barely resembles the Mitch played by Cruise that it’s almost a shock when a character brings up his old specialty. This Mitch isn’t looking to climb any ladders; he’s the kind of crusader of whom a judge might tell a new client, “You’ll find a lot of good human beings in this courthouse, and a lot of talented lawyers. What you won’t find are many people who are both. You’ve got one here in Mr. McDeere.”
The pilot opens with a sequence of Mitch being chased by goons through various D.C. landmarks, then pulls the familiar trick of flashing back to several weeks earlier so we can slowly but surely see how he got there. Some series use the in media res opening to set the stage for lots of craziness throughout, but too many shows – and “The Firm” is unfortunately one of them – do it because they know that the plot required to get to that entry point is really boring, and the audience needs something fancy at the start to hold their attention during the long expository passages.
Most of the ensuing time in the pilot actually has very little to do with how Mitch got into trouble, or even with how he winds up teaming up with a too-good-to-be-true firm run by Alex Clark (Tricia Helfer from “Battlestar Galactica”). Mainly, we spend time on Mitch’s defense of a teenager accused of stabbing a high school classmate, and then on a wrinkle created by the victim’s vengeful father. It is a story you’ve seen hundreds of times on other legal shows, almost always told with more style, and suggests a depressing formula for the show going forward where most of each episode is devoted to some bland standalone case, with little teases about Mitch’s larger problems sprinkled in throughout.
(That’s a formula that NBC’s sister channel USA has mined quite effectively with shows like “Burn Notice,” “White Collar,” etc. All of those shows take themselves much less seriously than “The Firm,” though, and the grim tone doesn’t mesh particularly well with the disposable storytelling.)
As Mitch, Lucas is exactly what he’s been in most of the movies that ultimately led to him starring in a TV show: solid, upright, handsome and largely forgettable. Like everything about “The Firm,” he’s not bad, but neither is he anything that will make setting a DVR season pass mandatory. I’m not sure if it’s an indictment of Lucas, or simply a bad decision by the creative team, that the pilot climaxes with a big speech not by Mitch, but by the judge who had previously been lauding him.(*)
(*) The decision reminded me of another Grisham story: “A Time to Kill.” In the book, the jury foreman gives a speech in which he lays out the brutal details of the crime and asks his fellow jurors to imagine that the young victim was white rather than black. When the movie was made, everyone involved recognized that viewers needed to hear that speech not from an extremely minor character, but from our defense lawyer hero, and the monologue went to Matthew McConnaughey.
Is there an audience so attached to “The Firm” brand name – 18 years after the movie, and 20 since the book was published – that they’ll tune into any generic legal drama working under that title? Probably some, but not enough to make the new version a hit on its own. (The dismal performance of TNT’s “Innocent” last month can’t have given NBC a lot of confidence, even though the circumstances aren’t exactly the same and Lucas was considered a movie star much more recently than Bill Pullman.) Brand names can sometimes help with awareness – or, in the case of “Prime Suspect,” they can hurt your show among anyone who remembers the original – but ultimately you need a show that will stand up on its own merits and not on people’s hazy memory of a story they enjoyed back when Amy Fisher was still a big deal.
And “The Firm” at this point doesn’t offer much on its own.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org