[6 October 2003]
Lyon’s Den, network television’s latest ensemble cast legal drama, begins with a bang. Literally. Lyon, LaCrosse, and Levine’s senior managing partner Daniel Barrington’s (Kevin Cooney) body hits the D.C. concrete sidewalk right below his 12th story office. Instant story arc: why did this man jump? Or better, did he really jump or is there a more nefarious plot in store, just waiting for a sweeps week deployment?
But no need to get bogged down in that story just yet, because there are about a dozen more simmering in Lyon’s Den‘s pot. Like, why is Jack Turner (Rob Lowe), silver-spooned Senator’s son and torchbearer for the lowly masses (he manages a pro bono legal clinic), automatically pegged by senior partner Terrence Christianson (former X-Files sneak James Pickens, Jr.) to take Barrington’s position at the firm? And why does Grant Rashton (Kyle Chandler), power-hungry Lyon, LaCrosse, and LeVine associate counsel, despise Jack? What about Ariel Saxon (Elizabeth Mitchell), law-school-student-turned-attorney-turned-alchoholic-turned-recovering-alcoholic, whose affair with Grant and complicated friendship with Jack establishes her as the show’s wild-card freak? And what is the ZeroTech litigation, anyway?
With all these plots and subplots, and as yet untold histories upon as yet untold histories, you might expect a degree of incoherence in a series premiere. But that’s not the case with Lyon’s Den. In fact, the first episode holds together at the level of story and form, mapping its sundry narratives onto a couple of well-established structural oppositions.
The first is based in class (upper and lower), framed in part as a distinction between attorney and non-attorney, the educated elite and the masses. It’s not long into the first episode that we’re introduced to several of the Lyon, LaCrosse, and LeVine paralegals, sitting in their darkened cubes, diligently redacting hundreds of pages of discovery text. These poor minions are represented as true worker slugs, with the “head paralegal” naming their status: “We’re paralegals, we don’t concern ourselves with what goes on upstairs.” In other words, just shut up and put your nose back to the grindstone.
Looking up can only cause trouble (or worse, a glimpse at some utopian otherworld where the photocopier’s ink cartridge isn’t your primary concern). There will, no doubt, be punishments and small victories to be handed out in future episodes over this “ne’er the twain shall meet” class division, especially as irreverent paralegal Jeff Fineman (David Krumholtz) appears to have his own longstanding sexual designs on Ariel.
Which brings us to the whole sex thing: male attorneys scoping out female attorneys (and vice versa) and female attorneys trying to get that foothold in the three-piece suit and wingtips realm of law. The usual plotlines are already in place: we have the illicit love affair between Ariel and Grant, soon to fall apart, apparently, but not before a few more sobs and recriminations can be wrung out of it. Ariel’s also caught between Jeff and Jack, who’s just waiting for the right woman (we know this, because in a painful bit of expository dialogue, Jack tells Ariel that he’s no longer with his old girlfriend). Poor girl. Ariel looks to be stuck at the center of it all: what’s a girl to do, especially when she’s a lousy drunk?
This male attorney/female attorney conflict has been played out so many times in so many shows (from L.A. Law to Ally McBeal) that it’s difficult to imagine anything new can come of it. But Lyon’s Den looks ready to trot the whole thing out on a consistent basis. (Which is probably okay, since these characters don’t seem to have a life outside of their work; the law firm exhausts all social and sexual possibilities available for, or even desired by, characters on law firm shows.)
Jack’s role, or better, his place, in all this is complicated. The point around which all the plots collect and intersect, he’s nonetheless situated ambiguously in the first episode. A powerful, charming enough fellow, people seek him out, they want him. But his decision to take the new job is largely out of his hands: in a fortuitous bit of happenstance, Lyon, LaCrosse, and LeVine is the benefactor for Jack’s legal clinic, and they’re not above threatening to cut off the funds if he won’t play ball. Even with the threat, Jack holds hard to his principles: he wants to fight for “the people,” not sit behind some mahogany desk. That is, until his law clinic partner, George Riley (played with suitable common man fervor by Matt Craven) puts it all in perspective (albeit with his fists). He won’t let the clinic go down just because Jack’s having some moral qualms. And so, Jack joins the firm.
All this lets Jack off the moral hook; it’s those nasty attorneys at Lyon, LaCrosse, and LeVine, not to mention George Riley, who make the corrupt choice. Jack’s turned into a kind of victim and savior of the clinic all at once. This is great for the show’s politics (familiar TV liberalism), because it means Jack can retain all that “all around good guy” street cred, while moving on to the sexier narrative digs up at the law firm. He’s not a sell-out, he’s just a Harvard Law grad stuck inside situational ethics.
The fact that the show takes place in Washington, D.C. only helps. Lyon’s Den trades on the image of D.C. as a shadow-realm, characterized by backroom dealings and shifting loyalties; intercut throughout the first episode are brooding images of the local monuments, shorthand signifiers of capital “P” Politics (and a not so subtle indication that Rob hasn’t fallen too far from the West Wing tree). Jack’s in political la-la land, and he can’t be blamed, it seems, for acting pragmatically.
Near the end of the first episode, Jack’s father is speaking by telephone with Terrence Christianson. There’s a distinct air of intrigue and conspiracy about the conversation, as if they’re plotting something truly “Watergate.” So, add political intrigue to the mix. The teaser for next week’s episode asks: “Now that he [Jack] heads the firm, who can he trust?” More potential victimhood for Jack, more potential strings pulling him in different directions. And more potential space for Jack to play out his “liberal” angst, something Lyon’s Den will likely traffic in on a weekly basis.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/lyons-den/