With “Characters Welcome” as its message, USA Network has consistently used charismatic leads to turn relatively-pedestrian series into big hits. Recent launch “Covert Affairs,” in particular, based much of its commercial message on the charm of star Piper Perabo, revealing how willing the cable network is to build its shows around likable performers.
But never before has a show so blatantly thrown all of its eggs into one actor’s basket. “Fairly Legal” is literally reduced to nothing if Sarah Shahi’s Kate Reed character does not click with viewers.
Advertising for the series has approached Shahi’s presence in a variety of ways–she has been portrayed as driven, sexy and even snarky. The promotion was not misleading; the “Fairly Legal” premiere, which airs Thursday night, is, if anything, even more reliant on the appeal of the “Life” actress in finding its voice.
It thus becomes one of the clearest examples of a “one woman show” in years. Yes, other actors receive screen time (notably Virginia Williams as Kate’s very young stepmom and Baron Vaughn as Kate’s quirky assistant), but none receive any sort of credible investment from the writers (Williams’ character is involved in a silly, unnecessary scene that asks her to choose between closing a deal and preserving dignity). The “Fairly Legal” premiere makes it clear that this is the Sarah Shahi show, and if viewers are not okay with that, they should look elsewhere for entertainment.
Luckily, the audience will be able to render its verdict on Shahi’s character within the first ten minutes. As legal mediator Kate Reed, Shahi’s character constantly attempts to painlessly resolve situations, which often means distinguishing between the legal thing and the right thing. So, sure enough, when the convenience store in which she is buying a morning coffee gets held up, she works out an agreement between the would-be robber and the store owner. Showing a hint of Jennifer Lopez’s confidence and a touch of the irreverance demonstrated by actors like James Spader and Kathy Bates in David E. Kelley’s comedic legal series “Boston Legal” and “Harry’s Law,” respectively, Shahi navigates the scene well and emerges as a credible lead.
Unfortunately, for all the poise Shahi shows from an acting standpoint, the soft writing hinders the impact of the Kate Reed character. In that pivotal scene, viewers are led to believe Kate is brazen, witty and very willing to establish herself as the smartest person in the room, but the actual dialogue is very flat-footed and insignificant. Great characters are established not necessarily by what they are doing but how they do it–the idea of a woman ‘mediating’ a hold-up is certainly cute, but nothing Kate actually says or conveys in that scene enhances the “cool factor.”
Similarly, the contrast between the well-dressed Kate’s involvement in a respected law firm and the fact that she lives on a boat attempts to establish the character’s quirkiness through concept rather than execution. In reality, she is neither as off-beat as the typical “boat resident” character nor as sophisticated as the typical lawyer character, and the supposed ‘clash’ between the two is thus lost on viewers. The character development thus comes across moreso as the writers providing viewers with empty facts than giving them an unfiltered window into the psyche of a uniquely-compelling female figure.
Still, with Shahi as game as she is, the character will work for many viewers. The male fans that somehow find themselves in contact with this blatantly-female-skewing series could very well be captivated by Shahi’s striking beauty, while the target female audience will see a woman who can be powerful and successful without sacrificing her femininity.
“I don’t know how the audience is going to react towards me,” Shahi told Headline Planet on a media call for the series. “I’m a bit nervous about that, but I do feel like I serviced this character and I serviced the stories that I was telling.”
The actress added that despite the lead role in the show and her requirement of an involvement in the creative process (She noted, “If they just wanted me to be the actor who comes to work, delivers the lines, and then beyond that I didn’t have any sort of creative say…it was not something I wanted to do”), she was careful not to assume any unnecessary pressure regarding her character’s role in the show’s success.
“Oh, Gosh, if I had thought about [my character driving the success of the show] as I was filming I’m sure I would have come across differently on screen,” explained Shahi. “I don’t know how the audience is going to react towards me…I just try to be as true as I can to the character and the story that I’m telling. Then hopefully within that truth, people will find her charming and adorable and all those things I hope people see.”
For USA Network’s sake, they better do so, as there is no other laurel on which to rest this series.
Notably underwhelming are the legal cases, which are neither dramatic nor light-hearted enough to give the show any creative foothold.
Essentially following the “Royal Pains” model, “Legal” focuses on cases that are low-profile in principle but can occasionally have emotional, far-reaching consequences. Unfortunately, Monday’s premiere of “Harry’s Law” was far more successful with that dynamic–unlike with David E. Kelley’s shows, the “Fairly Legal” writers have neither the goofy imagination needed to drum up truly amusing legal scenarios nor the dramatic flare needed to establish their gravity. Instead, the premiere cases either meander in unamusing insignificance (one involving a man suing several people for botching their roles in aiding his elaborate marriage proposal) or compromise their storytelling for the sake of including weightless Kate Reed lines about “doing the right thing” (one involving a suspicious car accident and its connectino to a corporate restructuring). When the character is not taking herself too seriously, Shahi always finds a way to make Kate shine, but the legal cases are just too far removed from clever or intriguing for any viewer to truly care.
The medical cases on “Royal Pains” are not dramatic equals to those on “House” and “ER,” but the writers often achieve the desired effect of the light-hearted medical situations. Here, in addition to having trouble telling a taut legal story, the writers struggle due to indecision about how serious the cases need to be. Even the more serious of the two cases, which dives into territory that nearly mirrors one of the stories on this week’s “Harry’s Law,” cannot help but end on a goofy (but not funny) note.
Kate’s other storyline involvements are similarly dampened. Her reflecting on the death of her father, which serves as a driving force for her renewed perspective on how the law should serve citizens, comes across as goofy and insincere–a cutesy scene in which Kate has a heart-to-heart conversation with her father’s ashes is not enough to rectify this weak post-mortem relationship. The character’s chemistry with other principals is also lacking; there are glimpses of an honest bond between Kate and her assistant Leonardo, but there could not be less of a demonstrable connection between Kate and her stepmother Lauren (Williams) or between Kate and her soon-to-be-ex-husband Justin (Michael Trucco). They speak to each other as familiar acquaintances, but there is nothing to suggest Kate even really knows these individuals, let alone has strong feelings towards them which impact various facets of her life.
But all of the storyline and character development flaws can be ignored if viewers bond with Kate Reed. If viewers want to see how that character progresses in her career, social and love lives, they will tolerate weak legal cases and uninspired relationships as a platform for featuring the work of Sarah Shahi.
Those who want this to be a reliable legal dramedy are better served watching “Harry’s Law” (or, better yet, re-runs of “Boston Legal”). But those who are more interested in a series with a charismatic lead and some promising, albeit currently struggling, dynamics, notably those who enjoy USA Network’s other character-driven dramas and comedies, might find “Fairly Legal” to be a fairly decent way to spend an hour.