Just Legal

[19 September 2005]

By Samantha Bornemann

Snaking the Wave

Just stand next to me and look smart. You’re good at that.
—Grant Cooper (Don Johnson), “Pilot”

Just Legal offers its share of pilot prerequisites—life-altering revelations, a tentative new partnership—but those oft-clumsy establishing must-haves go down easy in tonight’s self-assured debut. Old TV pros are at work here, and neither executive producer Jerry Bruckheimer nor Don Johnson are about to let the WB’s whippersnapper viewership throw them off their game.

And why should they? If anyone can make TV comfort foods—the procedural drama and dramedy—feel fresh, it’s this pairing. To that end, Just Legal accepts that viewers likely know the story beats as well as the show’s writers do; the real work is put into making sure the journey from predictable A to B to C is as entertaining as possible. So, writer Jonathan Shapiro (The Practice, Boston Legal) starts with a charming legal odd couple—the gruff but charming cynic and the goofy naif—who have just one thing in common: no one else wants them.

David Ross (Jay Baruchel) graduated first in his law class, but Santa Monica’s big law firms aren’t interested, because he’s still a teen. Crashing and burning in his latest job interview, David’s told to come back in five years: “You’re a decade younger than our new lawyers. In fact, you’re younger than most of our bike messengers.” Adding insult, his interviewer learns that his nickname is Skip. It’s because he skipped so many grades, he explains, “not because I skip…” Uh-huh.

Only Grant Cooper (Johnson, rumpled but still flashing that twinkly smirk), the jaded, faded defense attorney for whom David caddies, is willing to put his smarts to use. Working out of a hole-in-the-wall office right off the ocean, he coaxes David into writing his briefs and helping with his civil cases. In exchange, he’ll give the kid his first day in court. “No downtown law firm is gonna do that for you.”

Indeed. And so, while his mom remains nonplussed (“Who has an office at the beach?”), David jumps at the chance, setting up viewers for a nonstop clash of temperaments, experiences and aims. Open-hearted and idealistic, David wants to be a trial lawyer so that he can do good: “Every great cause in this country was fought by trial lawyers,” he says. “Every great injustice was fixed by them.” Grant hasn’t harbored such illusions in decades. “Read ‘em, plead ‘em, and move ‘em out,” he advises David as they enter the courthouse. “These are all court appointments. They’re poor, so they can’t afford a real defense, which is all right, ‘cause they’re all guilty anyway.”

Unsurprisingly, David doesn’t listen. When the client—a taciturn beauty named Paradise (Peyton List )—says she’s innocent, he enters a not guilty plea. “Apparently, she didn’t do it,” he tells the judge. Grant moves swiftly from shock to annoyance to damage control: “Now I know you didn’t mean to snake the wave, but you did,” he explains. “When you get to a new beach, you respect the local surfers. Like if I say Paradise is guilty, you agree, okay?”

Not okay. David just can’t shut up, especially since Grant never bothered to read the case file. So the young genius forges on, seeking evidence to mount a defense for the pretty girl; along the way he also learns more about his partner. As you’d expect, Grant wasn’t always such a cynic; once, he was even a great trial lawyer. Perhaps an awkward rookie is just the kind of nagging good influence he needs to start turning things around?

Sure, this has all been done before, but familiarity doesn’t make Just Legal any less fun. It’s good enough to see the one-time Sonny Crockett answer with a grinning “Not yet” when asked if he knows the girl he’s staring at. It gets better when the question doubles back to David, in a similar situation, and he assumes the opposite position (“I don’t tend to meet women like that”). Cooper and Ross have much to teach other, and viewers could do far worse than auditing the oddball buddy course one more time.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/just-legal-050919/