Kate Reed (Sarah Shahi) is a disenfranchised professional who’s at the top in her field. Unfortunately, her personal life is a mess, with a pesky ex hanging around and serious issues with her parents. In other words, Kate is a typical USA Network protagonist, and Fairly Legal a typical USA show.
Kate’s specialty is mediation. She works at her late father’s law firm, now run by her evil stepmother Lauren (Virginia Williams). Although Kate used to be an attorney, she walked away from practicing law to be a mediator because, we learn early on, she sees the gray areas in conflict, whereas the law only recognizes black and white. We get to see her skills in the series’ beginning, when Kate stops to get a cup of coffee and ends up negotiating with an armed robber, so he accepts some free beer and beef jerky rather than commit the crime.
This incident represents both the seriousness and absurdity inherent in Kate’s job. The series offers other examples: when she’s trying to settle a business contract conflict between father and son, the case takes an odd turn involving a car accident. Now a Yale student who’s worked his way up from the projects might be sent to prison for an act he didn’t commit—technically. Legally, he’s guilty, due to the fact that he was driving a car with the wrong person (his thug cousin) at the wrong time, but Kate is convinced that sending him to prison will ruin a potentially rewarding future. At the same time, Kate must also deal with a young couple suing the three people hired to assist with their “perfect wedding proposal.” When the proposal goes awry and the groom’s grandmother’s engagement ring, worth $11,000, is lost, the couple sues for $10 million.
These are the first two cases Kate faces upon returning to work following her father’s death. She’s clearly feeling conflicted, calling his cell phone just to hear his voice shortly after criticizing his my-way approach to law. It doesn’t help that she has to work with Lauren, who isn’t much older than she is, or that brother and best friend Spencer (Ethan Embry) has left the firm to be a stay-at-home dad.
Even as she juggles all these demands on her, Kate looks fantastic, wearing skintight leather skirts and lethal weapon stilettos. These clichés are offset by others that are quirkier, even charming: she has an odd sense of humor, lives on a boat, and is habitually late. She’s so appealing, the show suggests, that her ex-husband Justin (Michael Trucco) still likes her, dropping in for occasional late night visits, even though Kate uses him (he’s an Assistant DA) to accomplish her own goals.
Kate insists that her tendency to work outside the bounds of accepted legal procedures is justified because she seeks the greater good, namely, true justice. While listening to Kate explain herself, it is easy to visualize the same words coming out of the mouths of Hank Lawson (Royal Pains), Mary Shannon (In Plain Sight), Michael Westin (Burn Notice), or Neal Caffrey (White Collar), USA’s other highly skilled, disenfranchised professionals.
Like them, Kate has a loyal and efficient assistant, Leo (Baron Vaughn), as well as (older) detractors, Lauren and Judge Nicastro (Gerald McRaney), who sentences her to wear an ankle-monitor when she is late to court. Like Kate’s speeches, the set-up is too familiar. The USA formula is wearing thin. And so Fairly Legal fails to create tensions, as viewers can easily predict the outcome of any personal or professional problems Kate encounters.
Of course, the formula is not USA’s alone (consider the vastly superior Harry’s Law, which debuted this week on NBC). But because so many of USA’s shows feature the same sorts of characters, music, cinematography, plot devices, and direction, Fairly Legal suggests laziness on the network’s part. This laziness is most evident in Kate’s ring tones, which are musical excerpts from The Wizard of Oz and reveal how we are supposed to perceive everyone in her life—Lauren is the wicked witch, geeky Leo is the cowardly lion, and so on.
In another series on another network, Kate might have stood out. Stuck on USA, though, she’s an extraordinary woman on an ordinary show.