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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Legal drama, relationship comedy come off NBC's bench

Thursday, January 27, 2011

NBC, which has been struggling in the ratings race for the last several years (excluding the runaway success of "Sunday Night Football"), is continuing to try to find a show that will click with audiences. Two new series have joined their lineup: a law drama from one of TV's most-lauded writers, plus a new Thursday night comedy.

"Harry's Law." Harriet Korn (Kathy Bates) takes more than a few hard hits in the opening minutes of the new David E. Kelley-created legal drama "Harry's Law," airing Monday nights at 9 p.m. on NBC. A respected patent lawyer who has lost her enthusiasm for the job, Korn is fired from her position at a Cincinnati-based law firm in the very first scene of the pilot, then has a man literally fall from the sky onto her in the next. Soon she will be defending the would-be suicide victim in court, as he is the first criminal defendant she's ever had -- because he's a drug-addicted college student facing a third strike.

You'd think that would be enough story for a TV series' first episode (and you might be right), but not for this show. Korn also gets hit by a car driven by a young, ambitious attorney who, upon recognizing her, decides that she is the perfect person to become his mentor. A little later, she turns the tables on a would-be extortionist in her new offices by pulling a revolver on him.

Did I mention the perky executive assistant who discovers the extensive collection of designer women's shoes in the space and decides to sell them in the office? Or that the extortionist turns out to be not such a bad guy, even though he requires his own legal defense before the end of the episode? I didn't? My bad.

Some of you will think I'm exaggerating how overstuffed the initial episode is, but if you watched last week, you'll know I'm not. The pilot for "Harry's Law" plays like every goofy idea Kelley has had since the end of "Boston Legal" a couple of years ago, crammed into a TV-length script.

Yet I have to admit that I kind of liked it.

Bates, who deservedly has an Oscar on her mantel at home, is the reason to watch the show. She brings an innate intelligence and strong presence to the role; her Harriet Korn is a lawyer you'd want on your side. The show itself is pretty much the standard-issue David E. Kelley legal drama, which is not to say that it's necessarily a bad thing. His series are good-looking TV, with more than a little humor in the writing, which balances the serious beats in the stories.

But the hallmark of Kelley's work -- aside from the long-winded, issue-laden and politically-charged speeches the heroes of his shows get to make (and which no real judge would ever allow in open court) -- are the quirk-riddled characters which constantly encroach on whatever pleasures the show provides. For example, a haughty district attorney (is there any other kind in a Kelley-created show?), played by veteran character actor Paul McCrane, repeats practically everything he says, which gets very old, very fast.

I like Kelley's shows for the most part -- I was a big fan of "The Practice" in its early years, as well as its final season (why that show has not yet shown up on DVD in full season sets is a real mystery to me), and I also liked the first few seasons of "Boston Legal" -- and again, I liked this one enough to keep an eye on it. I just wish that he would tone down the rhetoric, cut down on the quirks, and perhaps avoid packing half a season's worth of stories into individual episodes. Three stars (out of four).

"Perfect Couples." I've never been to Sitcomland; no one I know ever has -- and it's a good bet neither have you. It's obviously a nice place, though, as it's mostly populated with attractive young people who don't seem to have real jobs, but have well-appointed homes and drive nice cars all the same. And although the people manage to fling themselves headlong into all kinds of wacky, embarrassing and potentially destructive shenanigans in Sitcomland, they resolve their difficulties with stunning rapidity -- within 22 minutes or so usually, not including the weird 2 to 3 minute blackouts -- then the next day, they get up to do it all over again, troupers that they are.

Apparently, Sitcomland's leading export is almost exclusively documentary productions about the people and their culture (maybe that's why no one's working -- a sweet life, that). One of the latest is NBC's "Perfect Couples" (Thursdays at 7:30), a half-hour that will remind you of another Sitcomland export, "Friends," in that it's about six people -- three men and three women, properly coupled up (as the title suggests) -- who spend way too much time together. It will also remind you of "Friends" in a significantly different way; specifically, about how much you'd rather be watching the hands-down-better reruns of that particular long-running comedy at that very moment.

The makers of this program want you to think that these denizens of Sitcomland are a fresh and lovable bunch, with lightning-fast wit and quirky-yet-relatable follies, but they're none of the above. And while the story is at turns obnoxious and ridiculous -- a scene of competitive public affection in a living room early on in the pilot is cringe-inducing; a concluding scene in the same episode where all the characters manage to end up in one couple's bedroom (with the thinnest thread of explanation) is an eye-roller -- these faults could be overlooked if there had been even a smattering of decent laughs.

But there aren't. When the credits roll, "Perfect Couples" only registers as a reheated hash of partially-formed characters and happenings frantically re-enacted from the barely-remembered scraps of other, better shows.

In other words, it's a typical assembly-line Sitcomland export, which is too bad, because even their factory-made stuff can be -- and sometimes actually is -- a whole lot better than this. One and a half stars.


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Jeremy Blomstedt
The Entertainment Center