Television, drifting in the deadly horse latitudes the past few weeks, has finally caught a breeze. Just as the summer’s entertainment was beginning to feel like it would consist solely of hurricanes and plagues of viral mosquitoes, the first two quality series of the vacation season debut Thursday.
Speaking of viral mosquitoes and other parasitic life forms, lawyers are at center stage in both shows, none of them likely to be mistaken for “Perry Mason.” FX’s “Wilfred” is a comedy about a depressive young attorney who forms a hallucinatory friendship with a talking dog. And that’s the realistic show. USA’s comedy-drama “Suits” follows a college dropout who scams his way into a job at a heavyweight Manhattan corporate law firm.
As unusual as both shows are — you may recall that the last time a disturbed young man started taking instructions from a dog, we got the Son of Sam serial killings, which were not exactly sitcom material — “Suits” is perhaps the odder. It’s a legal buddy story that begins with an unlikely alliance between a slacker (Patrick J. Adams, “Lost”) and a shark (Gabriel Macht, “Love and Other Drugs”).
Adams plays Mike Ross, a brilliant kid with a photographic memory who is reduced by bad luck and erratic judgment to scuffling through life taking bar exams and law-school admission tests for others. While fleeing a dope deal gone bad, he blunders into the line for job interviews for a top law firm.
The interviews are being conducted by Macht’s character, Harvey Specter, a senior partner whose vast legal skills dwarf his paltry ethical sensibilities. Rebelling against instructions to hire yet another top Harvard law grad (“We need people who think on their feet, not another clone with a rod up his (digestive system)”), he’s fascinated by Mike’s freelance legal knowledge and entranced by the idea of hoaxing his officious partners.
But “Suits” is far more than a whimsical caper show. Beneath its cuttingly funny dialogue lurk complex emotional edges. The show takes place in a world peopled — if we may use that expression when describing a series about corporate lawyers — with hardball characters to whom the law has long since become a high-stakes game without the slightest mooring to justice or morality.
Mike’s counterfeit law degree may be the most audacious trickery going on in the firm, but practically everybody is running some kind of scam, and consequences are something that happens to the other guy. “I’m not about caring,” Harvey warns Mike. “I’m about winning.” When Mike plaintively wonders why the two must be mutually exclusive, Harvey’s disdain turns acid: “I’d explain it to you, but then I’d have to care about you.”
Watching a relationship tentatively evolve from such barren ground give “Suits” a subtlety not found in the light television fare of summer. On the other hand, there’s nothing at all subtle about the gloriously absurdist “Wilfred .” Imagine if the loutish frat boys of “Animal House” put on a production of “Harvey” in which the giant empathetic rabbit has been replaced by a 6-foot-tall dog with a penchant for humping cocktail waitresses’ legs, and you’ve more or less got the picture.
Elijah Wood, who plays Frodo in the “Lord of the Rings” movies, here is Ryan, a despondent screwup who even muffs his suicide attempt. While trying to figure out why he’s not dead, he reluctantly agrees to watch his bosomy new neighbor’s dog Wilfred (Jason Gann, who created the Australian series from which this one is adapted) for a few hours. But Wilfred, though a regular mutt to everyone else, appears to Ryan as a surly, beer-swilling, hookah-puffing man in a cheap dog suit.
Full of misanthropic sight gags (when Wilfred digs up the back yard, for instance, he does it with a shovel) and bad-boy mockery (Wilfred’s sensitive sense of smell turns out to be mostly good for finding unattended dope stashes), the show of course offers important life lessons. Foremost among them is that life is short, and you should live it to be happy rather than to fulfill other people’s expectations. And also, it’s fun to defecate in the shoes of your enemies.
10-11:30 p.m. EDT Thursday
10-10:30 p.m. Thursday