Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Why “The Firm” Again?

NBC decided to roll out a new legal drama based on the John Grisham novel, “The Firm,” which you might remember was turned into a film with Tom Cruise back in 1993. My first thought was that this was an odd choice of property to be resurrecting. The film is nearly twenty years old, John Grisham peaked in popularity long ago, and don’t we have enough shows about lawyers on the air right now? Well, NBC didn’t think so.

The new series picks up about ten years after the events of the book and film, wherein idealistic lawyer Mitchell McDeere (Josh Lucas) brought down a corrupt law firm and the mobsters who employed them. He starts up a new criminal practice in the Washington DC area, and settles his lovely wife Abby (Molly Parker) and daughter Claire (Natasha Calis) in suburbia. Mitch also employs a sassy secretary, Tammy (Juliette Lewis) and his own ex-con brother Ray (Callum Keith Rennie) as a private investigator. No points for guessing that the mobsters come back to take their revenge, and Mitch gets himself entangled with a new evil firm, run by Tricia Helfer.

“The Firm” wants to convince audiences that it isn’t your typical legal drama but rather a more action-oriented thriller like the movie was. The trouble is that it clearly doesn’t have the guts for that. So, it wraps its cases of the week in a lot of intrigue with the evil firm, and adds bookend sequences that flash-forward to several months in the future, where Mitch is being chased around by the police because of certain developments with one of his cases that haven’t been revealed to us yet. In other words, it has shamelessly stolen the structure of “Damages,” in order to spice up an ongoing conspiracy story that is probably going to turn out to be pretty pedestrian.

Good characters and performances can make up for these kinds of shortfalls in the writing, and “The Firm” has the benefit of some great work from Josh Lucas, who may actually get you to forget about Tom Cruise in the role, if you haven’t already. Juliette Lewis and Callum Keith Rennie are a lot of fun as his scruffy support crew, and Tricia Helfer is putting her creepy Cylon vibes to good use. The weak link, I’m sorry to say, is Molly Parker, who is so utterly bland as Abby McDeere, she makes me wish Mitch spent more time at the office. What happened to that daring, engaging young woman who nearly seduced Gene Hackman in the movie?

But I digress. As someone who watches a lot of crime procedurals, I appreciate that the weekly cases have all been well-written so far. They’re sensationalist, but they’re not ridiculous, like a lot of the “Law & Order” ones have been lately. The production values have been a notch above the rest, especially for the future storyline, which is essentially one big chase sequence being doled out to us in bite-size chunks. If you like crime procedurals, you could certainly do a lot worse than “The Firm.” However, after two episodes, it hasn’t hooked me. I’m not curious enough about the big mystery to want to know more, and the characters aren’t entertaining or compelling enough for me to want to watch them weekly. I like most of the actors, but they haven’t been given enough yet to really shine in their roles.

Now if “The Firm” were on AMC or TNT I think I’d be more willing to give it a few weeks to find its footing, but the fact that it’s on a network and it’s subject to all the creative constraints of being on a network, make me highly doubtful that “The Firm” will get better in a hurry. It certainly has the potential to be a more interesting legal drama than it is right now, if they center the storylines on the regular characters instead of spending so much time on the cases, but it’s just not going to happen. The show is structured to be a procedural, so any ongoing developments are doomed to progress at an iceberg pace, subordinate to the murder or manslaughter of the week. I just don’t have the patience for that kind of thing anymore when the rewards are so uncertain.

So I wish “The Firm” the best of luck, but it’s not the kind of show that I’m ready to commit to. It has some challenging elements, but on the whole it’s just not daring or challenging enough. I’d rather go and finish “Damages” than watch a knockoff. And though I like procedurals, there are an awful lot of them out there with a lot less baggage to deal with. If “The Firm” sticks around, I might pick it up again later, but only after it proves that there’s something to the show beyond the big budget and the branding.

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