Prime time's female lawyers challenge the old-boy network

by Aaron Barnhart

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

21 January 2011

Harry's Law 

Does a woman bring more than just female viewers to a TV legal drama?

It’s a question that networks and producers are thinking about as they keep tinkering with that most shopworn of genres.

What’s notable about the two newest entries — “Harry’s Law” on NBC and “Fairly Legal” on USA — is that both revolve around a female attorney. This you don’t see every day, not even on “The Good Wife,” which, despite the protean talent of Julianna Margulies, has settled into an ensemble, with camera time duly balanced between male and female leads.

In other words, status quo.

In real life and TV, men have traditionally been the ones solving crimes, giving the news conferences on TV, defending the high-profile suspects. In prime-time dramas, they still are.

But while the real world is changing — 45 percent of associates in law firms are female, and that percentage is growing fast — TV has been slow to react.

“Damages” on FX was the first legal drama that put a woman in charge of a high-powered law firm and gave her a distinctly feminine voice. (I say “was,” but if you have DirecTV it’s heading there for a fourth season this summer.) Of course, if you’ve seen Glenn Close’s portrayal of Patty Hewes, watched her grind adversaries under her heel, use up people like notepads and all but shoot deadly rays out of her eyes, the word “feminine” may not come immediately to mind.

Her cruelty, though, was part of her appeal to women. The way she humiliated men — like the outlaw billionaire Arthur Frobisher — was pure feminist revenge fantasy. But Patty’s willingness to use illegal methods and mind games on her staff was all in service of her crusades to bring down evil men. These were men who ruined thousands of lives yet, thanks to their high-priced legal teams, were able to avoid prosecution.

They were men, just like the men who gamed the system in the first place to favor corporate interests and smother individual rights, all the while sneering at justice — who, after all, is often depicted as a blind woman.

In a fascinating piece in the journal Flow, Lucas Hilderbrand contends that “Damages” is a show “about justice outside the rule of law.” Most contemporary Westerns explore this idea as well, but Patty is not a lone gunman. She is a woman who has nurtured a large web of relationships inside the legal system, yet will circumvent the system as she pleases because she has no faith in it.

This is just what the other side does, but Patty is heroic because she’s challenging the old-boy network, if not plotting its destruction. It’s a conceit of “Damages,” writes Hilderbrand, that “a strong woman can make the powers-that-be — straight white men — pay for their misdeeds.”

Take out the revenge factor and the cynicism and “Damages” becomes “Fairly Legal,” the new drama that premiered Thursday on USA . The show is neither as dark nor as demanding on the viewer as “Damages.” Yet the two shows share the same message: The legal system can’t always deliver justice, so it’s up to a resourceful woman to save the day.

In this case that would be Kate Reed (Sarah Shahi), a smart, high-powered attorney who has grown disenchanted with the legal system. Her recourse, however, is to quit the family law firm and become a mediator. Now she exists at the edges of the system, taking the cases that get kicked over to her by exasperated judges, diplomats and fellow attorneys.

Whether it’s a family business with succession issues, a wedding gone awry or a petty criminal looking at three strikes, Kate is always looking to avoid the harsher justice that the system has been programmed to mete out. She talks fast, charms easily and has a killer room-silencing dog whistle — anything to get the squabbling parties to arrive at yes.

“Facts change,” she says. “Positions should, too. Everything’s not so black and white.”

It’s a bright, fun little show, adhering to the formula that has worked for so many other light dramas on USA: tight writing, a little romance, whirly movement. Between scenes there’s a lovely stop-motion effect I’ve never seen before; it makes San Francisco look like a 3-D model with Matchbox cars.

I’d like to see Kate acting a little less girly-girl, but otherwise “Fairly Legal” is engaging and distinct, which, considering the genre, is saying something.

“Harry’s Law,” which premiered Monday, stars a best-actress Oscar winner, Kathy Bates, and it was created by David E. Kelley, whose bookcase of Emmys includes a 1999 best comedy win for “Ally McBeal.”

Now that I’ve built it up, where do I begin tearing it down?

Bates plays a burned-out patent lawyer named Harriet who, after getting tossed from her old firm, decides to start a general practice in a storefront in a “bad” part of Cincinnati. We know it’s bad because a few hours after opening, Harry is visited by a local thug who tries to shake her down for protection money. He looks like the kind of thug Valerie Bertinelli would try to help in a Hallmark movie.

Merchants who decline his services, the hoodlum says, “tend to be burglarized, vandalized and plagiarized at an alarming rate.” Harry responds that she already has protection and — wait for it — pulls out her trusty Smith & Wesson.

Already losing you? Good.

This role had some potential for Bates. She livened up what has been an otherwise dreadful season of “The Office.” But here, as a retail lawyer with a corporate pedigree, Harry could be an advocate for all kinds of people getting a bum steer. This could be “The Practice” with a bigger, “Boston Legal”-size conscience, minus the cigars and testosterone.

Unfortunately, neither Bates nor Kelley seems to have any heart in this show. Picking up pretty much where he left off with “Boston Legal,” Kelley turns the courtroom into Air America. In the first episode, we hear the case of Harry v. The War on Drugs, which I think I heard James Spader argue once or twice.

Harry’s first client literally drops from the sky. She breaks his six-story suicide plunge, yet miraculously escapes with minor injuries.

“I know it sounds crazy,” he says later, “but I really think I fell on you for a reason.”

That doesn’t sound crazy — it sounds like something right out of “Ally McBeal,” Kelley’s most notorious show and one that offered, alas, his best-formed portrait of a woman at law.



“Harry’s Law”: 10 p.m. EST Mondays, NBC

“Damages”: Seasons 1-3 on DVD and download. Season 4 begins this summer on DirecTV.

“Fairly Legal”: 10 p.m. EST Thursdays, USA

//Mixed media