David E. Kelley's learned a couple of things in three decades of pumping out television shows: lawyers are weird, funny people; American viewing audiences will often accept quirk as a substitute for character development; and a sense of justice is more important than the fine points of law. Fortunately for Harry's Law, his unremarkable but quite likable new project which premieres on NBC tonight at 10 pm, Kelley also picked up a lesson from Mike Nichols and Primary Colors: It's always a good idea to give Kathy Bates a big gun.
Bates actually begins Harry's Law with a big joint (the gun comes later, as a rat eradication device and a means of avoiding paying protection money). A bored patent lawyer who defenestrates herself from her firm by means of a doobie, Yosemite Sam cartoons, and a deeply laconic mouthing-off, Harriet Korn lands a new law office in a former shoe store in a bad Cincinnati neighborhood. The story of how she got there is filmed in a way that suggests Kelley harbors an unfortunate desire to hit dancing-baby gold again. Bates is joined by Brittany Snow as a legal secretary who sets up an alternate revenue stream by selling off the leftover shoes from the prior tenant; Nate Corddry as a young associate at a large firm reinvigorated by defending the head of a local protection racket; and British stage and screen actor Aml Ameen as a college student with a cocaine problem who pays Harry back for his defense by coming to work for her.
The setup, of course, is nonsense, the comedy and the liberal politics exceedingly broad. But at a time when Ohio's a hot setting in television, there's something refreshing about Harry's Law's approach to Cincinnati. Glee's only really set in Ohio because show choir has strong Midwestern roots. The Hard Times of R.J. Berger has as its point the hero's penis, not his hometown. Melissa & Joey may have a Toledo councilwoman, but the main issue is whether it's cool for said councilwoman to get with her manny, with a detour into politicians-with-illegal-help drama. Hot in Cleveland's entire conceit is the title city's squareness.
Harry's Law is hardly a Wire-like analysis of Cincinnati's racial divide, gentrification challenges, and criminal justice system. Its charming criminals are irascible old ladies who pull armed robberies and protection racketeers who interpret restraining orders to mean they can tie up domestic abusers and lecture them rather than gay rip-and-runners. There are a lot of Benevolent White People helping out Saintly Black People With Problems. There's even a defense of China's one-child policy in the name of helping a nerd score with a hot chick. But for a comedy-drama to be not simply situationally aware of Cincinnati's race and class issues but to base itself in them is almost refreshingly earnest, no matter how odd and blunt the execution.
And no matter where he dropped them, it's a delight to watch the cast Kelley's assembled for this venture. Kathy Bates is just a year older than Meryl Streep, but she makes Streep's elegance seem a little bit boring. Bates can tell off someone who threatens to "plagiarize" her relatives or tell an annoying district attorney, "I'd really appreciate it if you'd cut the condescending crap. It makes you come off bald," with the same delightful sense of exhaustion. And Nate Corddry, one of the more self-serious parts in the quickly-canceled Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, is genuinely sad and funny as a promising lawyer who flees to Harry's new law firm in the wake of a bad breakup (and after hitting Harry with a car) only to find himself declaring "yesterday, I stuck my finger in a guy's leg! I want to stay!" If Kelley can find something more promising to do with Snow, a not untalented young actress who deserves to do more than fuss over shoes and declare her boss "a big stuffy," the show might actually feel like a complete ensemble comedy.
It's too early to tell whether Harry's Law will be one of Kelley's many tossed-off failures or an eccentric success. But even if it's just for a little while, Kathy Bates as a gun-toting misanthrope who offers to sleep with her broker to get malpractice insurance in a gentrifying neighborhood is hot in Cincinnati.