[7 January 2012]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
We were a little scarred by our last firm experience.
—Mitch McDeere (Josh Lucas)
“It’s happening again.” Of course it is. And as Mitch McDeere (Josh Lucas) breathes hard into a pay phone, his wife Abby (Molly Parker) knows exactly what “it” is—a very bad law firm is once again using her brilliant lawyer husband to do its very bad work. Still, she reacts as if she doesn’t, by beginning to say out loud the “emergency plan” they’ve agreed to—until he warns her, “Don’t say it, just go!”
This brief minute or so at the start of The Firm does not bode well. Really, Abby must know better than to give up their secrets over the phone, because she knows that the firm has surveillance on all their personal devices. And really, Mitch must know that too, which means that calling Abby on the phone is a certain tip-off.
It could be that they’ve forgotten what “it” actually is, or the precise plot of the previous Firm, which starred Tom Cruise as Mitch and opened in movie theaters almost 20 years ago. Their sense of time and maybe their memories too might be scrambled, given that—as they explain very helpfully in this series premiere, airing 8 January—they’ve been on the run for a decade, mostly under the auspices of Witness Protection. This was long enough for their 10-year-old, Claire (Natasha Calis), who was conceived while they were first escaping, to grow resentful of all the moving about they did when she was younger. And it was also long enough, apparently, to convince them it was safe to risk resurfacing—in DC, of all high-profile places—with their real names available for all to see, against the advice of their burly federal minders.
All this is made clear in a few minutes of flashback, which turn into the rest of the episode’s extended flashback. This reintroduces Mitch’s team from before, namely, his loyal, black-bra-ed, heavy-smoking secretary Tammy (Juliette Lewis) and her boyfriend/Mitch’s brother Ray (Callum Keith Rennie). He served time for manslaughter and so now has a good feel for all things “street,” meaning he can talk to criminals and black people (at least this seems to be the equation made in this first episode).
Tammy and Ray are now working with Mitch in his adamantly non-firm-associated storefront legal operation, where he has eight (not-yet) paying clients and also takes pro bono criminal cases (“You’re discount defense,” observes one murder suspect). The one case he hopes will pay for his nice house is likely to be settled, as it involves suing a company for a woman now dying because of its faulty cardiac stent.
These cases don’t come together so much as they suggest a formula. Mitch is smart (and admired as such by at least one judge who knows him) but struggling. Abby is patient, and together they will have to evade the same terrible fate that they eluded in the movie.
Tammy and Ray have their own parts in this formula: she’s tough and wise and he’s tough and ex-conny, both helpful in te evasion and also, it turns out, in weekly subplots. Ray, for instance, is able to reconstruct crimes in flashbacks (badly, it turns out), which makes him central to the legal case that serves as subplot and center of this firsts episode. For one thing, he finds a key witness at the schoolyard where a 14-year-old killed another boy; this security guard confides in him because Ray recognizes his tattoo. He also runs a scam on someone looking to hire a hitman, apparently because Ray looks so tough and ex-conny that a complete stranger will hire him with no background checks whatsoever.
The schoolyard case does offer Mitch (and his wife, who teaches fifth graders) a chance to talk about the US juvenile justice system, as well as the increasing tilt toward trying kids as adults. As Mitch explains it to the suspect’s father, the juvenile system means to “rehabilitate a child, but with an adult, [the aim is] to punish a criminal.” Of course Mitch and Abby believe every child can be saved, and if Mitch’s methods toward achieving that end are a little disingenuous, well, they’re always well intended. (It’s not encouraging that Abby has to explain to him the plot of Native Son.)
The same cannot be said for the big bad firm, which employs 60 lawyers to represent corporations and wants to bring in Mitch to jumpstart its criminal division. That he falls for this line is unbelievable, given his history and ostensible intelligence, but the show needs that plot, and so he does, as does his wife. The show does give him a chance to berate his new colleagues and lay down his moral gauntlet (such as it is) when a fancy-pants firm attorney confronts him at a party, “You’re a moralist,” sniffs Mr. Fancy Pants, “You spend your day defending criminals.” Mitch is ready with the moralist’s correct answer: “We both defend criminals… The difference is, I’ll admit it to anybody. You won’t even admit it to yourself.” Snap!
Apparently, this wee bit of comeback is all Mitch needs to feel like he’s in control—enough to convince himself that joining the firm is a good idea (he needs their money to be able to do the research and mount the case for the dying woman). He also offers this exceptionally weak rationale to Abby, who implores him to remain independent. “Maybe it’s because I’m the son of a coal miner and a waitress, not a bank president and a socialite like you,” he whines. She reveals that she’s carrying as much rage as he does when she spits back: “So you have to be around entitled people to make yourself feel worthy?”
I wouldn’t call this a “snap,” but it does indicate they have some things to work out. It may be that the show means to have them do that over time (the show is already contracted for 22 episodes). For now, Mitch decides to join the firm. That he makes this decision knowing at least what you know about what a similar firm did to him does not bode well.