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Intersection of Life and Faith

Harry’s Law and the Case of the Stacked Deck

  • Alex Wainer TheFish.com Contributing Writer
  • 2011 31 Jan
<i>Harry’s Law</i> and the Case of the Stacked Deck

David E. Kelly is a lawyer but is better known as the creator of several legal dramas, (or "dramadies") including, Picket Fences, The Practice, Boston Legal, and now, Harry's Law

 In each of them, Kelly uses a formula of colorful characters and outrageous courtroom antics, to create situations that give him a platform to espouse liberal notions and attack conservative ones.  It's a nice gig that allows him to be the Oliver Stone of legal dramas.  But some viewers may hold him in contempt. 

The "Harry" of the new show's title is Harriet Korn, played by Kathy Bates, a patent lawyer who at mid-life finds herself so apathetic about her work that we first glimpse her reclining in her office, smoking pot. Quickly fired, she wanders down the streets aimlessly until a young black man falls on her from above. Harriet is shaken up but surprisingly unhurt, and suspects the young man was trying to end it all before she broke his suicidal plunge.

Immediately afterwards as the still dazed Harriet is walking down the street of a rundown neighborhood, she spots a storefront for rent, gets an idea and obliviously steps off the curb into the path of an oncoming car.  Back in the emergency room, Harriet, again miraculously unhurt, looks up to see the car's driver, Adam Branch, a hotshot young lawyer she once faced in a patents case.

Soon Adam leaves the big firm where he worked and recruits himself to work at Harriet's storefront law office for reasons he doesn't make clear.  The storefront's previous tenants left their stock of designer shoes which brings squeals of delight from Jenna, her blond and of course, ditzy, legal assistant who begins displaying and selling the shoes to clients.

With very little motivation established other than a mid-life crisis and with an impulse to try something different than patent law, the upshot of the pilot is that, "things happen for a reason," that Harriet's collision with both Malcolm and Adam was fate moving her, injury free, into a purpose-driven life, to advocate for the oppressed clients of the Cincinnati inner-city neighborhood.  There's the implication that a higher power has orchestrated "Harry's" new direction, which means that the practice is a providential agent whose mission is just, no matter how hopeless the cases, no matter how far out the clients.   That's a setup Perry Mason would love.

The new practice is in a poor part of town, or rather an obvious studio backlot dressed to appear as part of the grimy inner city.  The inauthentic set fits right in with the series though, because nothing about Harry's Law feels realistic—the characters, cases or their conclusions.

This is in keeping with Kelly's formula of loony plot scenarios, with comic treatment of courtroom cases that suddenly turn serious, creating faux dramatics before a happy ending.  Malcolm, the young black man who landed on Harriet, has been charged for the third time with cocaine possession and a jail sentence that could ruin his college career and crush his mother's hopes.  Pleading with Harry with puppy dog eyes, he convinces her to take his hopeless case. 

Typical of a lawyer show, the premiere episode had a second case involving Damien Winslow, a small-time hood with a protection racket, whom Harry, hoisting her large gun, quickly intimidates into becoming an actual security guard for the practice.  In no time at all Damien has been arrested for shooting a would-be robber seeking to rob a laundromat under his "protection."  Apparently, Damien, being exposed to Harry's halo effect for five minutes, really had stopped his extortion racket and become a neighborhood security provider.  Adam takes his case, another one with hopeless prospects.

Harriet's courtroom opponent is a snarky D.A. motormouth who doesn't hide his disdain for Harriet's defense of so guilty a client.  Out of her depth, Harry seems to fumble her way through the proceedings, her patent law background being no preparation for criminal court.  Malcolm's mother pleads with Harry to help her son.  Harry sees no way Malcolm, who we know is too nice to go to jail, cannot escape prison.  But reaching deep down, she soon switches the terms of the argument from the case at hand to argue for legalizing drugs and whether jail is an appropriate punishment for a multiple drug offenses.  Literally making an "oh the humanity!" appeal, she addresses the jury compellingly but Malcolm is still found guilty.  But as the judge, is pronouncing sentence, he says that the two-year sentence will be set aside pending the successful conclusion of a drug treatment program. Yay! 

Adam, less experienced in the courtroom, overcompensates by going over the top in his defense of Damien's shooting trial.  Apparently he's watched too many David E. Kelly courtroom shows, and begins acting out, shouting at the judge that his client's guilt is mitigated because his client "cares about the poor" so much that he shot someone threatening to rob one of his clients.  

The second episode follows the same pattern, both lawyers taking hopeless cases and winning them against smug, arrogant and/or cynical legal opponents.  The dialogue is clever in a showy, rather than smart way.  The colorful clients may be guilty of the actual crime they are charged with but the firm argues that circumstances, poverty, Rush Limbaugh and other rightwing nemeses are the real issue rather than criminal behavior and thus win their cases or at least have their arguments vindicated.

Because legal shows need lawyers, a much despised profession, to be sympathetic heroes, the only really good thing about the show is Kathy Bates, who demonstrates that bad writing cannot prevent her from giving compelling performances.  She's in control of every scene she's in and makes the manipulative dialogue credible—almost.  Nathan Corddrey as the preppy young Adam has the more comedic role as a quirky, seemingly lightweight counselor who takes cases impulsively and then has to win them.

There's an anachronistic feel to the show's premise, like it was pulled from a stack of rejected scripts from 1981 that depict the only hope for various ethnic types is the arrival of two affluent white people to strive for the justice available nowhere else, while offering some really cute womens' shoes too.  By now, Kelly's legal wackiness shtick seems old.

Harry's Law is sort of a wish-fulfillment fantasy for liberals, a way of arguing not about the real law but what Kelly thinks a progressive society ought to be.  But such a quirky legal farce, replete with precious dialogue, deserving clients and underdog lawyers creates its own problem—if everything about the show seems so unreal, do the progressive solution Kelly's scripts invokes also seem just as fanciful? 

The new series would be far more compelling if it's heroes, instead of serving as mouthpieces for Kelly, were allowed to be more complex and sometimes wrong in their taking the case of truly criminal clients. Yes, it's in the nature of legal dramas for its protagonists to be the heroes against whatever adversary confronts them, but allowing some true complexity into a plot would allow the audience to examine the controversial issues Kelly so glibly exploits and decide for themselves what to believe instead of listening to conveniently contrived propaganda.

*Alex Wainer, Ph.D. teaches media and film at Palm Beach Atlantic University. He is a regular contributor to theFish.com. 

**Watch Harry's Law on NBC, Monday, 10pm EST 

***This Review First Published Jan. 31, 2011