There is racial tension. And we do get into that a little bit. But that wasn’t the reason we chose Cincinnati.
—David E. Kelley
At the end of the second episode of Harry’s Law, Harry (Kathy Bates) has a beer on her desk and a smile on her face. The day’s gone all right: she’s won a case she had no business winning, defending an 87-year-old grandmother who was videotaped robbing a store at gunpoint. And now, as Harry wonders “what the hell I’ve gotten myself into,” the grandmother, named Anna, stops by to offer a “proper thank you” and welcome her to “the neighborhood.” As Anna makes her way out the door, the camera offers looks at Harry and her bright young employees, Jenna (Brittany Snow) and Adam (Nathan Corddry). He looks especially pleased as he exhales, “Is it just me or did that feel really good?”
As good as it might feel for him, the moment is exactly what’s wrong with Harry’s Law, David Kelley’s new legal dramedy. However excellent it may be to see Bates hold forth on assorted issues of the day—the war on drugs and sentencing disparities, the Wall Street bailout, Arizona’s anti-immigration legislation—it’s not a little disappointing to see her show fall all over itself to be cute, or more specifically, to help its white protagonists feel welcomed into their new black neighborhood.
Certainly, they all mean well, and use their particular skills and experiences to help poor, disenfranchised clients. At the start of the series, Harry explains why she leaves her $600,000 a year gig as a patent lawyer in Cincinnati: “I lead a dull life with dull partners,” she tells one of those partners, who promptly fires her. Out on the sidewalk, Harry is literally hit in the head by a black man who falls from the sky; more precisely, Malcolm (Aml Ameen) has jumped off a six-story building in hopes of killing himself, as he’s been busted buying cocaine from an undercover detective. Though the cops have tried to “flip” him, hoping for a dealer’s name, Malcolm doesn’t have a dealer. He’s in college and a drug treatment program, and has only lapsed for a minute, but because it’s a third strike, he’s sure to go to prison and so, disappoint his mother and oh yes, ruin his life.
Believing that he’s fallen on her “for a reason,” Malcolm convinces Harry to take his case (“I googled you,” he says, “You’re supposed to be really good”), which leads her into a confrontation with local DA Peyton (Paul McCrane, still most memorable as the villain melted by toxic waste in Robocop). The more he insists that the law is the law, the more she’s inclined she is to make speeches about how wrong the law is, for instance, punishing drug users rather than treating them or, more precisely, punishing poor black offenders while treating wealthy white ones. While Peyton falls back on clichés (look, Your Honor, she’s playing “the race card”), Harry makes the smart argument, with multiple recognizable references to, for instance, the morality of jury nullification, the corruption of perpetual reelection campaigns, and the “hijacking” of the Republican party by “the likes of Rush Limbaugh, a drug addict himself who somehow fared much better in our judicial system.”
Yes, as its title indicates, the show is inclined to present Harry’s view as the right one. That’s not to say that Peyton is without recourse: he’s a self-admitted “asshole” and a “douchebag,” as he’s called by Harry and her clients, but he’s a committed officer of the current law, not really at fault. And this is the logic of Harry’s Law, that everyone means well, but, well, some people are misdirected.
The results of this logic can be predictable, as in the repeated use of Peyton as courtroom foil, or silly, as when Jenna follows her boss from her former employment to the new neighborhood and discovers that the space they’re renting is a former shoe store full of unsold designer product, which means she can now put to use her knowledge of “footwear” to finance the office. It can also be preachy, as when Harry’s visited by Damien (Johnny Ray Gill), who pitches himself as a “security” expert who extracts money from businesses for his services because “Cincinnati’s finest ain’t too quick to respond sometimes.” But he’s not what you think: he does in fact serve his community, which the white folks come to realize when he shoots a thief in mid-crime and all his clients show up in the courtroom in order to support him, duly acknowledged by the white lady judge as credible, if not precisely legal, evidence of Damien’s good character.
Repeatedly, Harry’s Law makes this sort of argument, that an underground economy of services and justice exists, just waiting to be discovered by the folks who practice proper law. Invariably, these folks are good-hearted and want to be enlightened, and most of them are white, save for some black judges, also willing to be persuaded by Harry’s sentencing pitches (rumor has it that Steve Harris, ho was terrific on Kelley’s The Practice, will make an appearance). It’s not precisely unrealistic that the white folks remain unenlightened until they are confronted by other white folks, but it has already—in just two episodes—become a tedious pattern. The show seems aware of the questions raised by this narrative dynamic, but hasn’t sorted out a way to do more than note them. As Harry and her white team members look satisfied to be welcomed to the neighborhood, Malcolm is still wondering what made her decide to give up her six-figure salary.