Last week I wrote a scathing rant about the ad campaign for USA Network’s new female-led legal drama Fairly Legal. In my rage I failed to realize the title was a play on the term “barely legal”, making it even more nauseating and demeaning to women than I originally thought. So I when I tuned into the pilot last week I was fully prepared to see another mini skirt-clad, glamorous-yet-adorably-flighty working girl bumbling about with file folders and shouting “I object!” as the barista hands her the wrong latte on the way to the office. I was only half right.
Fairly Legal’s main character Kate Reed, former NFL cheerleader and L Word actress Sarah Shahi, does spend a fair portion of her day looking preternaturally cute while bumbling about carelessly missing trolleys and showing up to court and client meetings late. On balance, however, the show manages to portray her as a competent, compassionate and insightful professional woman. I suspect much of the credit is due to Shahi herself, who manages to walk the line between slapstick and inanity with unexpected aplomb.
In the pilot we learn that Reed has (for reasons that may or may not be disclosed later) recently quit the traditional practice of law at her father’s firm. After some period of mourning his death she has decided to save her soul by reinventing herself as a mediator. Let it be stipulated that this show’s portrayal of the legal profession ““ and particularly alternative dispute resolution, which according to the writers is supposedly a kinder, gentler sort of legal practice ““ has just about zero grounding in reality. As a lawyer it’s hard for me not to be chafed, but I am willing to suspend my disbelief if for no other reason than that a realistic depiction of mediation would make for an achingly dull and sober show. The disputes Kate mediates in this show range from purely absurd (talking a would-be robber out of shooting a store owner by negotiating two free six packs and a can of beef jerky) to reasonably plausible (negotiating the consummation of a merger by getting the CEO’s son out of a DUI). It seems the purpose of these various vignettes is not so much to highlight the mediation process as to highlight Reed’s tact and creative problem-solving abilities and to raise interesting questions about fairness and cooperation.
The DUI dispute in particular pitted a reckless, philandering son of upper class White privilege against an African-American teenager with a scholarship to Yale who ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time. Although her character is at times annoyingly glib, the writers have endeavored to portray Reed is grounded, ethical and anti-racist. Against direct advice from her managing partner/step-mother reminding her that the teenager is not their client, Reed unflinchingly insists her own client examine his privilege and when that fails blackmails his son into dropping the charges. Again, not realistic, but refreshing and somewhat inspiring.
There’s only so much you can tell about a show from its pilot and presumably some of the kinks will be worked out as the season progresses. As is, I am fairly convinced it’s worth tuning in to find out. For one thing Battlestar Galactica’s Michael Trucco has been cast as Reed’s ex-husband and foil and the tension between them looks to be as delicious as he is. The one thing that truly disappoints me about this show is the white-washing of Sarah Shahi. It’s not clear to me why Shahi, who is half Iranian and half Spanish, is playing a character by the Ã¼ber-Anglo name “Kate Reed” (with a brother who appears to have the ethnic background to go with it). It’s somewhat surprising in light of the focus USA has put on diversity. More important, however, is the fact that this is the second show USA has built around an Arab-American actor and another fairly realistic and overall positive portrayal of women on television.