One of the constants of television is the legal drama.
Probably starting with the venerable Perry Mason, lawyer shows have the same inherent ingredients that make for successful doctor and cop shows: professionals involved in a weekly case, or two that drives the episodic nature of the series.
In lawyer dramas, despite the reality of months or years of legal procedures, the case is usually wrapped up in under an hour, placing them next to fairy tales in terms of realism. This allows audiences to have loads of drama and conflict neatly tied up in a satisfactory resolution where the lawyer hero, wins the case because he or she is the star of the show, making the genre about as realistic as an Oliver Stone movie.
Perry Mason was a defense attorney whose clients always looked guilty as sin until the unstoppable Mason, played by the imposing Raymond Burr, tore apart the actual guilty parties on the witness stand, reducing them to a confessing puddles of goo at right about the 54-minute mark of the episode.
Ever since, legal eagles for the defense (The Defenders, both the early 60's one and the wackier recently canceled series) and the prosecution (Law & Order) have pursued justice and ratings in the durable genre, depending on various leads and stylistic diversity to set a series apart.
Producer/creator David E. Kelly, himself a lawyer, created at least three noteworthy series: The Practice, Boston Legal and the recent Harry's Law. Especially in the latter two, Kelly threw legal realism out the window as he used his characters as mouthpieces for his liberal ideology, engaging in outlandish courtroom tactics justified by whatever right-wing straw man he was trying to skewer that episode.
With the new TNT drama, Franklin and Bash, ideological passion has been replaced by a near nihilistic prankishness practiced by the titular leads Jared Franklin (Breckin Meyer) and Peter Bash (Mark-Paul Gosselaar).
We first see the duo sitting in a diner waiting for drivers to crash while distracted by video of a buxom woman in an electronic billboard, so they can rush over and offer to help them sue the sign company for creating a traffic hazard.
They're so successful at arguing such cases that they come to the attention of Stanton Infeld, founding partner of a huge high-powered law firm who sees in the audacious duo the image of his younger on-the-make self. He hires them, much to the disgust of his nephew, Damien Karp (Reed Diamond) whose last name explains his function as the more strait-laced foil who's supposed to look like a fuddy-duddy compared to F& B and who is supposed to represent the qualities we don't like about lawyers, pomposity and arrogance.
There's no doubt the two leads have good chemistry as they breezily trade rat-tat-tat lines and complete each other's sentences.
The two aging frat boys have been brought in to shake up the stodgy practice and are soon flirting with the women in the office or describing their reactions to them. Seeing one striking woman, Franklin remarks, "Bitchy little barracuda. I'm getting movement in the lumbar yard."
The boys' tactics of getting a witness to undress in the courtroom to win a case attracts the attention and admiration of Infeld (played by the eternally hip Malcolm McDowell) who invites them to his office.
Explaining their strategy, Bash starts out, "You know the old saying, ‘If the facts are against you, argue the law,'" and Franklin finishes, "If the law is against you, have a hot-chick with enormous breasts take off her clothes in court."
These sorts of tactics, which would never fly in a real courtroom, convey the real point of such theatrics as expressed by Jared Franklin: "Our job is not to follow the law. Our job is to make the law." Or to win by any means necessary.
The point of outrageous lawyering in both Kelly's series and Franklin & Bash is to make typically serious trials entertaining by subverting the gravitas of the courtroom.
The sophomoric hijinks continue at the large house out of which our heroes operate with their researcher Pindar, an agoraphobic and their paralegal/private investigator Carmen Phillips.
At any given time there can be a house party full of people. Once Peter, drinking a beer in a fully loaded hot tub, gets a call and gets out, in a full rear nude shot, to go in to get the call. The show seems to be trying for the Wedding Crashers/Hangover demographic where crude dudes rule because they're so cool.
Again, Meyer and Gosselaar are very good with their lines and insouciant attitudes, but I found it hard to like them; they're so smug, crass and fatally hip that they resisted the audience identification necessary to emotionally invest in the characters. The plots are so strange that it was hard to have a rooting interest in a legal or moral victory.
In the second episode a beautiful woman is accused of using energetic sex to kill her rich older husband. The third show featured a nice, broad-featured if average-looking woman who was fired from a men's magazine staff for not being gorgeous enough. The twist is, she has such high self-esteem that really doesn't realize how ordinary she looks and believes it was her beauty that made the other women jealous.
It's hard to do stories that are quirky in an entertaining and amusing way. Though the stories move quickly enough to keep you awake, they are so lightweight that it's hard to remember the details afterwards.
Ultimately, Franklin and Bash are characters so breezy and carefree that there is little at stake in their lives or their cases. The pilot episode suggested that each has a woman in his life that may be worth pursuing if they were ever to become the kind of grown-ups who could make a committed and mature partner. But then they'd be like all the dull working stiffs they make fun of and their distinctive man-childishness would be over. Franklin & Bash is just too cool to rule.
*This Article First Published July 5, 2011
**Franklin and Bash airs Wendsdays on TNT