THE DARK SIDE OF KELLEY
David E.Kelley’s new primetime series on NBC, Harry’s Law, has just turned bleak. Fans of Ally McBealwere initially delighted by the idea of a sacked patents lawyer (‘Harriet Korn’/Kathy Bates) setting up a storefront law firm in an abandoned shoe shop. She recruits an unlikely team of a naïve corporate lawyer, the black college kid who was her case, and an assistant more interested in the shop’s remaining stock of shoes than the law. It looked like a network show that would skate across serious issues. Granted, Kathy Bates was an intriguing choice of lead, and plays the role with absolute conviction. But she is balanced by the blonde glamour of Brittany Snow as Jenna and the preppy looks of Nate Corddry as Adam.
Then things went awry. Harry had clearly set up in the wrong part of town. Her cases involved real suffering and genuine moral dilemmas. Although the location is by no means clear, this is obviously a city with its fair share of urban problems, many of which drift into their storefront. By episode 5, Harry faces disbarment for throwing a case: failing to defend properly a client she knew had murdered his wife. Soon after, the firm is forced to mediate in a gang war. There are few of the laughs and none of the whimsy of Ally McBeal. Instead there are the weighty moral dilemmas which come to a head in the courtroom interrogations and summing-up. The cases are finely balanced. Harry pleads for a landscape gardener fired after more than 40 years service, citing ageism. “Our society hates old” she says, convincingly. The defence fires back: “who would you fire? The employee who is financially secure and owns his home outright, or the younger one for whom losing a job would be catastrophic?” We wait for the (predominantly grey) jury to decide as the commercials grind relentlessly on, proving the point, stridently made by both Harry and the prosecution in the case that the old are “dead to the networks”.
This is a show that does not mince its critiques of contemporary America. In episode 7, Harry takes on the case of four Tanzanian albinos, illegally in the US for two years, who fear gruesome dismemberment if they return to their country where gangs hunt them for their limbs which have ‘magical’ properties. Would it spoil the plot to know that Harry loses the case? Because that’s the real surprise. After Harry’s impassioned appeal to the ideal of America as the home for “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses” the judge nevertheless agrees with the opposing argument that America can no longer act as the world’s asylum. His sentencing speech depicts a broken America that cannot feed its own people. No wonder the online poll on the show’s website (‘You Be The Judge’) has 82% of participants agreeing with the proposition that this is the worst time in America’s history to be an immigrant. And 58% disagree with the proposition that the American dream is alive and well.
In the same episode, just to take our minds off all these speeches, Harry and Jenna enter into an office feud because Harry thinks Jenna has overreacted to the theft of her car (it’s a red one). You’d think this would yield some comedy. But Jenna sulks spectacularly, and their attempts to make up escalate into a full-blown debate about lookism. Harry is forced to admit that she has always had to “rise above” the slights that she has suffered as a result of not conforming to conventions of glamour.
What is this show doing on NBC, the network that brings you a whole evening of comedy on Thursdays? Perhaps they aren’t that sure either. Harry’s Law plays at the comparatively late slot of 10pm Eastern time on a Monday night, but this means that it hits the Midwest at 9pm. How will they cope? It’s not at all clear whether the network is fully behind this series as its website is highly parsimonious with episode catch-ups. So is this another of those edgy shows that actually works but is a bit too dangerous… or will this prove to be the moment when the darker, more complex and pessimistic view of the US finally breaks out of its HBO compound?