Say what you like about David E. Kelley’s body of work—and I’ve said enough over the years—I have to at least give him credit for basing a career on trying to upend our expectations of TV. But his new NBC drama, Harry’s Law, forces the question: when the way a particular writer “subverts” our expectations becomes the expectation itself, what do you have left?
If you’ve watched any commercials on NBC over the last few weeks, for instance, you know that early in the pilot, star Kathy Bates gets hit out of the blue by a car. Of course things happen out of the blue to people on Harry’s Law: it is a David E. Kelley show. Of course the show in question is about a lawyer: it is a David E. Kelley show. And of course that lawyer’s work allows her to end up in court, delivering lengthy, impassioned speeches that tell us pretty much what Kelley thinks about whatever hot-button issue he’s writing about that week: it is a David E. Kelley show. (Oh, and the lead character, Harry? A woman! Though Harry is a man’s name! Consider your expectations… subverted! It is a David E. Kelley show!)
For the entire run of Boston Legal, I heard repeatedly from people who evidently enjoy this a great deal. Some of them liked that Practice spinoff precisely because of the shoehorned-in, soapboxing, strawman-piercing legal arguments; it was basically The West Wing without the subtlety, and it simply felt good to part of the audience to hear their own views powerfully argued back to them. Some people enjoyed the show for its strong performances, and I can see that: James Spader and William Shatner often made me enjoy their implausible characters in spite of themselves.
And in the two episodes of Harry’s Law, Bates—playing Harriet Korn, a down-and-out, eccentric lawyer who starts a (literally) shoestring defense firm in the storefront of a Cincinnati shoe-store—is their equal. Her character, a hard-drinking, pistol-packing liberal with a lot to say about how the legal system is stacked against the average guy, is as outsized a figure as you’d expect, but Bates manages to ground her in reality. But she’s surrounded by thinner-than-thin supporting characters: loopy coworkers, arrogant legal adversaries and clients who are the kind of caricatures of Troubled Urban Street Youth that, I guess, are supposed to not be offensive as long as your legal drama is taking their side.
At this point, though, I suspect that the Kelley style of drama is so established, and so recognizably Kelley, that Harry’s Law is about as review-proof as a season of Jersey Shore. So I invite the more favorably inclined to come here after the debut and tell me what they see in it—or what I was missing in, say, Boston Legal. Commence your opening arguments!