During the first minutes of The Guardian‘s pilot, corporate attorney Nick Fallin (Simon Baker) pleads to a drug possession and gets three years probation, a $10,000 fine, and 1,500 hours of community service as a children’s advocate. Though he’s never tried a court case before, Fallin then has to represent a kid who saw his father kill his mother with a kitchen knife. Almost despite himself, Fallin investigates the case and finds out that the father became violent because a large pharmaceutical company gave him the wrong schizophrenia medication. As a result, the kid gets to stay with his father, and Fallin and Associates can represent the family in a million-dollar lawsuit against the pharmaceutical company.
This initial plot sets up a repeated storyline: in every episode, Fallin juggles low-budget work at Children’s Legal Services (a.k.a. CLS) with cut-throat, big money cases in the law firm founded by his father, Burton Fallin (Dabney Coleman). At first glance, this premise doesn’t look clever enough to set The Guardian apart from the many other legal dramas on network TV.
Neither does the supporting cast, which pales in comparison with those on other ensemble legal shows, like The Practice. The CLS team includes Alvin Masterson (Alan Rosenberg), Nick’s dedicated but socially inept boss; experienced lawyer James Mooney (Charles Malik Whitfield); plump, earnest, and good-natured legal secretary Barbara Ludzinski (Rusty Schwimmer); and pesky caseworker Laurie Solt (Kathleen Chalfant). At Fallen and Associates, Nick works with Amanda Bowles (Erica Leerhsen), an inexperienced and idealistic first-year associate who has a crush on him, and the cynical seven-year associate Jake Straka (Raphael Sbarge). Despite their stereotypical roles, these supporting characters have initiated some interesting tensions, such as a hilariously uptight dinner conversation between urbane Bowles and Straka and Ludzinski, whom Nick has brought along as his date. Still, if this paragraph sounds like a casting call list, it is because none of these characters have had a chance to develop: they mainly appear to call attention to the primary attraction of the series, Nick Fallin.
And indeed, viewers seem to adore him. Initially panned by critics, The Guardian, within a fortnight, had become the top-rated new show of the season. Two months ago, Australian actor Simon Baker has had a distinguished TV career in Australia, where he received a prestigious Logie award for Most Popular New Talent in 1992 and was nominated by the Australian Film Institute for his starring role in 1999 TV miniseries Secret Man’s Business. But Baker was relatively unknown to the U.S. public, even though he had appeared in such major Hollywood films as L.A. Confidential (1997) and Red Planet (2000). Now, after six episodes of The Guardian—and in his first leading role on U.S. TV—Baker has already inspired two fan sites, one at Yahoo and another with a personal domain name, http://nickfallin.com, in addition to official show pages at CBS and at the production company, Columbia TriStar Television.
Baker portrays Fallin’s mix of upper-crust disdain and quiet compassion with admirable economy, and looks extremely fetching in Armani suits. But even Baker’s talent and good looks do not entirely explain why the series was approved for its full season several weeks earlier than most other freshman shows.
I would like to think that the show’s popularity owes something to its central idea—that children’s wishes deserve a hearing in court on par with the “expert” opinions of adults. It certainly sets The Guardian apart from similar shows (CBS’s Judging Amy, for example) that its young characters get as much attention from the writers and directors as do adults. Given that each child client rarely appears in more than one episode, the series sketches out the complexity of their personalities remarkably well, whether a 15-year-old who accuses her stepfather of rape to stay with an older, drug-dealing boyfriend, or a 16-year-old gay kid who manipulates his homophobic parents into kicking him out of the house.
Repeatedly, Fallin’s young clients lie, cheat, and otherwise scheme against adults to get what they want—hardly the innocent, helpless victims children are often imagined to be. Unfortunately, the writers look to be planning a departure from this focus on young people—in a recent episode, CLS lost its funding to a rival organization, accepted an adult legal aid contract, and became Legal Services of Pittsburgh, which means that, in the future, adult clients may become more common than kids.
In addition to its child characters, The Guardian also stands out on network television because of bits of Pittsburgh industrial history drawn from the family past of the series creator, writer, and producer—playwright and screenwriter David Hollander. CBS and Columbia TriStar Television, following the current trend of treating TV writers as “auteurs” of their shows, gave Hollander freedom to craft the story after his own family’s life. The series is set in his native Pittsburgh, where his brother David Hollander runs a nonprofit firm that represents children, KidsVoice, his father Tom Hollander runs a law firm like the show’s Fallin and Associates, and his grandfather was a steel worker. (David Hollander also served as a consultant during the filming of the first few episodes.)
The show’s most unconventional narrative lines draw on these personal histories and on Pittsburgh’s historical image as an immigrant, working-class steel town. Fallin’s father, Burton, a steel plant worker and union organizer in his youth, eventually founded Fallin and Associates. Most of the time, both father and son act like ruthless corporate litigators. But occasionally, the family’s working-class past comes back to haunt them. In one episode, the steel manufacturing company where Burton Fallin used to work comes to Fallin and Associates, asking to be saved from bankruptcy. Fallin Sr. initially refuses to represent them, and only agrees after his son reminds him of his own past. At this point, Burton Fallin proposes to reorganize the company and give the workers a share in the business. This fairytale solution provides a hokey but ingenious explanation for Nick’s success as children’s advocate: because of his working-class roots, Nick spends more time and energy helping his dispossessed child clients than working at the law firm, and finds each of these kids infinitely more interesting than his corporate acquaintances.
This corrective to the conventional American dream of upward mobility complicates the show’s somewhat stereotypical depiction of class conflicts—between Nick’s corporate career and his nonprofit community service, his expensive suits and his proletarian origins, his colleagues at the firm and at Children’s Legal Services. Hopefully, the many devoted fans who tune in because of Simon Baker will appreciate The Guardian for its interpretation of social strife as well.