Review: USA’s ‘Suits’ a flat legal drama

Senior Television Writer
06.22.11 28 Comments

USA has established an odd little tradition in recent years where most of its new series debut with extra-long episodes. On the one hand, I understand that a channel whose motto is “Characters Welcome” would want to give its new shows bonus time to establish those characters from the outset. But on the other, USA shows are designed to be light, easy-to-digest fare – even when they’re not airing in the summer, they feel like they should be – and these super-sized opening portions usually feel a bit too leaden for that.

Rarely, though, have I had as hard a time getting through an inflated USA pilot than I did through all 73 minutes (90 minutes when you factor in commercials) of “Suits,” the new legal drama that debuts Thursday at 10 p.m. after “Burn Notice.”

It’s not that “Suits” is terrible, or even bad. When you have a factory approach like USA has, there’s going to be a baseline level of competency for each new bit of product that comes off the assembly line. “Fairly Legal,” USA’s previous new series (also a legal show, and clearly an area the channel wants to mine) was also problematic, but at least it had Sarah Shahi doing light comedy.

The issue with “Suits” is that it feels much, much too flimsy to hold up over 73 minutes, and even the standard-length second episode felt about 10 minutes too long. Again, it’s an excuse for attractive people dressed in nice outfits to banter, and that’s swell to a point, but eventually a man wants a bit more. (And the better USA shows, like “Burn Notice” and “White Collar,” provide that when they’re at their strongest.)

The premise itself, and the show’s universe, both feel awfully thin. We’re introduced to attorney Harvey Specter (the professionally handsome Gabriel Macht), a killer shark with a killer wardrobe, whom boss Jessica (Gina Torres) repeatedly introduces as “the best closer in New York.” (All due respect to Mariano Rivera, apparently.) Jessica and other characters, in fact, talk so much about how brilliant Harvey is at closing deals that it either feels like padding in a long pilot or, more likely, creator Aaron Korsh hedging his bets, just in case he didn’t do a good enough job of actually showing Harvey’s genius – which he hasn’t quite. We see him close an impossible deal early on, but in a way that blows up in his face later, and he spends most of the two episodes I’ve seen putting out fires of his own creation.

Most of those fires arise from his impulsive decision to hire Mike Ross (Patrick J. Adams) – a college dropout with a photographic memory who once passed the New York state bar on a dare – as his new associate, trying to pass him off as a Harvard Law grad. It’s the whole point of the series – the golden boy giving the scrappy kid from the streets a chance, and the scrappy kid in turn giving the golden boy a heart – and yet the show never really sells us on Harvey’s reasons for taking such a big risk. He’s presented as too selfish and impatient to attach himself to someone who could both torpedo his own career and who has to have his hand constantly held on matters that an actual Harvard Law alum would know.

So Mike constantly gets both himself and Harry into trouble due to his ignorance of basic legal practicalities, and Harvey in turn seems much dumber than the show wants him to seem. (For that matter, Mike’s beautiful mind seems to take a significant beating between the pilot and the second episode.) And every five minutes, Harvey is either threatening to fire Mike for endangering his standing in the firm or Mike is threatening to quit because Harvey’s too mean and unfair.

Again, if the pilot were shorter, those beats might not feel as played-out by the time we get to the second episode and do it all over again, but there are still fundamental story and logic problems that shouldn’t have even flown on a turn-off-your-brain kind of network like USA.

(It would also help if this top New York firm didn’t feel so underpopulated. There are lots of extras floating around, but the only ones who ever speak or do anything are Harvey, Mike, to a much lesser extent Jessica, Rick Hoffman as a sleazy rival partner and Meghan Markle as a paralegal who’s constantly filling in the gaps in Mike’s practical knowledge. Most USA shows have casts this small, or smaller, but they tend to be about outsiders, where “Suits” is trying to be about an insider and an outsider who team up inside this big institution.)

Still, there are isolated moments where the show comes close to clicking. We get to see both Harvey’s charm and courtroom savvy in an amusingly deadpan scene where he outlines his argument in a sexual harassment case by posing a hypothetical about the middle-aged male judge seducing his middle-aged male bailiff. And even if I don’t buy Harvey hiring Mike, the scene where they meet and Mike shows off his smarts is snappy and fun. (The two characters are kept weirdly separate for much of the pilot and the second episode, when the interplay between Macht and Adams is by far the show’s best asset.)

But the pilot episode definitely would have benefited from a less-is-more approach, while the series as a whole could use a little more meat and/or logic.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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