Often, the most valuable part of going to the TV critics’ press tour isn’t interviewing actors, or even listening to network executives spin their latest mess, but simply getting to hear show creators articulate their vision. Sometimes, hearing about that vision can reinforce a critic’s opinion of a show. Sometimes, it can make them reevaluate. And sometimes, it’s just plain strange.
David E. Kelley came to the press tour on Thursday to talk about “Harry’s Law,” his latest legal drama (in a career that’s included “LA Law,” “The Practice,” “Ally McBeal” and “Boston Legal,” among many others). He described it as a series about class disparity in America. As he sees it, “Harry’s Law” is a fairly nuanced show about how more and more, the law has been designed to protect the haves while betraying the have-nots.
He described, in other words, a radically different show from the one you’re going to see Monday night at 10 on NBC.
I’ve seen the first two episodes of “Harry’s Law,” and if they deal with issues of class and race and the distribution of wealth in America, it’s only as an excuse to set up the usual Kelley levels of overbearing wackiness – the sort that it often takes him half a season to reach, but which he achieves within minutes of the premiere.
Kathy Bates plays Harry, an esteemed patent lawyer who has a late-life crisis and decides to open up a storefront law firm in the slums of Cincinnati – which, as conceived by Kelley and as shot on a studio backlot, are like a brightly-lit cartoon parody of someone’s idea of ghetto life from the 1970’s. (The show even features a cover of the theme to “The Jeffersons” as one character moves in.) As Harry arrives in the neighborhood, she’s knocked over by a man who just jumped off a building. A few scenes later, she’s hit by a speeding car. In both cases, she’s uninjured because, we’re told, her body is “mostly soft tissue” – or, as her legal secretary Jenna (Brittany Snow from “American Dreams”) puts it, “She’s like a big stuffy.”
So Harry and Jenna set up shop in a former shoe store that somehow randomly still has an impressive collection of designer stilettos, and Jenna resolves to sell the inventory (and then acquire more to sell) in her spare time. We’re introduced to the thug who runs the local protection racket, who at first is written as a parody of a parody of a blaxploitation character, and who then turns on a dime and is revealed to be a proud community servant of some sort, which winds up seeming only slightly less ridiculous than the assortment of Manolos left behind in this ghetto shoe store.
And then Harry goes to court. Hoo boy.
Kelley continues the approach he adopted sometime in the “Boston Legal” run, in which the courtroom scenes don’t even bother trying to resemble either an actual courtroom or a TV version of a courtroom, but in which his main character is simply allowed to stand up and speechify on whatever hot-button issue Kelley has an opinion on that week. In the premiere, it’s drug decriminalization; the next week, it’s the mortgage crisis. And Harry yells a lot, and then Paul McCrane – playing the incredulous prosecutor who, by virtue of opposing Harry, seems a lot more sympathetic than I think Kelley intends him to be – yells back, and the witnesses, the judge and the jury become irrelevant.
And the thing is, there are fans of this cartoon approach. I still hear from people upset that “Boston Legal” got canceled. But either Kelley genuinely doesn’t think he’s making a cartoon this time, or Oscar winner Kathy Bates wants no part of the hamminess that won William Shatner a couple of Emmys, because in the midst of all this day-glo weirdness, she’s attempting to give a subtle performance.
At one point, Harry claims, “It’s possible I’ve lost my mind. The good news is, I can still practice law as a lunatic – perhaps more effectively.” But outside of the courtroom, Bates’ Harry is quiet and weary and seems saner than her actions (in one episode, Jenna spots a rat in the store and Harry whips out a pistol and shoots it), and even as she’s yelling at McCrane’s character, she’s still a bit restrained. It’s a lead performance that’s completely at odds with the tone of the rest of the show, and one that makes all the other goofy things even more uncomfortable than usual.
Kelley has made some of the great law shows of all time, and also some of the worst (anyone remember “girls club”?), and often times the same series will qualify for both categories at different points in its run. At that press conference, Kelley said that even his kids told him, “‘Dad, please, not another law show.'”
In this case, he should’ve listened.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org