[01/20/11 - 12:07 AM]
The Futon's First Look: "Fairly Legal" (USA)
By Brian Ford Sullivan (TFC)

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The network's description: "FAIRLY LEGAL centers on Kate Reed (Sarah Shahi), a top litigator frustrated with the endless bureaucracy and daily injustices of the system, who takes a hard left to become the ultimate anti-lawyer: a mediator. Using her knowledge of the law, along with her savvy, intuition and a whatever-it-takes approach to resolving conflict, Kate finds the middle ground for a wide variety of adversaries -- from Fortune 500 corporations to bitter divorces. After the sudden death of her father, she finds herself at odds with the new boss, her stepmother Lauren Reed (Virginia Williams)...and in bed with her soon-to-be ex-husband, Justin Patrick (Michael Trucco), a top gun in the DA's office. Helping her keep all of this chaos at bay is her trusted, geek-chic assistant Leonardo (Baron Vaughn). FAIRLY LEGAL was created and is written and executive produced by Michael Sardo with Steve Stark serving as executive producer. The series comes from Universal Cable Productions."

What did they leave out? As is custom for USA's pilots, "Fairly Legal" - originally dubbed "Facing Kate" - runs approximately 75 minutes.

The plot in a nutshell: Kate Reed (Sarah Shahi) is an expert in alternative dispute resolution, better known as mediation. Case in point: at a holdup during her morning coffee run, Kate manages to calmly diffuse the situation by pointing out to the robber and shop owner the mutual upside of calmly turning over the cash and goods without bloodshed. That's just the beginning of another breathless day for Kate, her first back at her father Teddy's firm since his death: Judge Nicastro (Gerald McRaney) has appointed her to mediate a particuarly bizarre case involving a lost wedding ring; her "evil" stepmother/managing partner Lauren (Virginia Williams) wants Kate's help in managing one of their few high profile clients left, Charles Pease (Ken Howard), that hasn't jumped ship since Teddy's death; and she continues to cave to her ex-husband Justin's (Michael Trucco) charms, despite constant proclamations she wouldn't do just that.

And if that wasn't enough things are about to get more complicated: the aforementioned handling of the Pease family - his son Douglas (Patrick Gilmore) needs a DUI to go away - requires a favor from the DA's office, where Justin just so happens to work. Even worse, getting him off has some bigger implications for those involved in the accident. Thankfully she has a few friends: her brother, lawyer-turned-stay-at-home-dad Steve (Ethan Embry), fills the void left by her father as late-night sounding board; and her geek-culture-infused assistant Leo (Baron Vaughn) is almost superhumanly patient and supportive. Ultimately, finding a way to keep all her clients happy and free doesn't prove to be a problem, rather it's finding a way to give Kate a few moments of peace in the courtroom of life.

What works: Enough can't be said about the awesomeness that is Sarah Shahi. In lesser hands Kate Reed could be a scatterbrained mess and yet Shahi somehow takes control over her inherent peripatetic-ness and makes it the means to which she gets a handle on her various foibles. She not only has a dozen plates spinning but she needs that to be the case. It's a delicate balance, one made all the more impressive by the various ebbs and flows of Sardo's script: she's punchy and self-assured and yet still worships her late father as if she's still 10 years old; she's can be mean and spiteful and yet quietly sweet; she's always late and doesn't follow protocol and yet she gets the law's true intention better than anyone.

Collectively they paint a worldview of the law - not to mention the legal procedural itself - that's decidedly unique. If anything, "Legal" purports the idea that since no one wins in court, mediation at least has both parties' interests in mind. It's a take that gives a surprisingly satisfying heft to the genre's usual mechanizations. Sure it's fairly pat and saccharine in the end but it earns those aspects, whether through Kate's enjoyable lies and theatrics or her earnest appeals to our basic decencies. Said attitude applies to the other characters as well: Lauren, Justin, Leo and Steve are painted as The Wicked Witch, The Tin Man, The Cowardly Lion and The Scarecrow, respectively (complete with their own ringtones) and yet there's a tenderness, heart, loyalty and honor, respectively, to them that's wonderfully realized as well. All in all, I can't say enough good things about this show.

What doesn't: On the flip side, I wasn't a huge fan of Bronwen Hughes's direction. There's more than a few times when the handheld aspects of the camerawork are distracting to say the least and feel very off point, especially for a USA show. It's not a dealbreaker obviously but that's why this space is here.

The bottom line: Sarah Shahi is awesome. And you should watch.

  [january 2011]  


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