'Suits' Does for Lawyers What 'Downton Abbey' Does for Aristocrats

Like Downton, the USA Network legal drama examines power dynamics within a gilded enclave. Like Buffy, it taps the underlying anxiety of its setting. Like both shows, it's very worth watching.

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A decade and a half ago, American TV created the best teen drama ever made, based on the absurd premise that a Southern California high school must fight off periodic attacks by vampires, werewolves, demons, and praying mantises disguised as MILFS. Buffy the Vampire Slayer succeeded because that central metaphor, though ridiculous, dramatized a deeper truth. For teen-agers, high school really is a life-or-death struggle against monsters.

Tonight marks the winter premiere of the USA Network drama Suits. Like Buffy, Suits draws its power from a literally impossible premise: Its central character, an associate at a high-priced New York law firm, has not actually attended law school or passed the bar. That premise of imposture—with its constant panicky fear of exposure—is a powerful metaphor for the top level of the legal profession in our time.

The big-firm life may is in many ways a cage, but it is a distinctly gilded one. People still in their 20s make six-figure salaries and five-figure bonuses, and give advice to powerful corporations and famous clients. The offices are splendid, the support services (libraries, secretarial staff, etc.) sumptuous. All the firms ask is unremitting toil; those hours of drudgery help block out one all-but-inescapable question: What am I doing here? How did three years of law school transform me from a bright young adult into a deity worth $300 an hour?

In most legal dramas, these big-firm lawyers are the villains, devoted to crushing the virtuous Erin Brockoviches and their deserving clients. In Suits, however, the high-dollar bar has its own story to tell—one that combines appalling venality with an engaging pleasure in a job well done.

Our hero, former pot dealer Mike Ross (Patrick J. Adams), actually "deserves" his chance in a way that his Harvard-educated peers don't: He is so brilliant that he takes the LSATs under false names for money, and must remember to get some answers wrong because too many perfect scores would stir suspicion. He has memorized the major legal encyclopedias and even understands the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. He can read any document once and recite it by heart; he never sleeps when solving a legal problem; he is conscientious, careful, and usually decent. The fear of being found out, however, keeps him forever in a state of panic—as it does for many at the high end of the American meritocracy.

Mike's boss is law-firm senior partner Harvey Specter (Gabriel Macht), who actually is a lawyer and "the best closer in New York." Harvey and Mike commit an entire casebook of ethical offenses—interviewing represented adverse parties, disobeying clear instructions from clients, misrepresenting facts in negotiations—in the service not merely of money (in fact, at this firm, money seems just to fall from the sky) but of the "true" best interests of their clients. That premise, too, is absurd, but the cases are mere secondary pleasures. Like many people in large organizations—and in this case, like the viewer—Harvey and Mike actually find the life inside the firm more interesting than anything that happens outside.

Why wouldn't they? The fictional Pearson Hardman is as arbitrary and dangerous a place as Sunnydale High on Buffy. It runs on terror, secrecy, greed, ambition, machismo, and repressed sexuality. (Blogger Dustin Rowles recently called the show a "contemporary Game of Thrones-lite.") Managing partner Jessica Pearson (Gina Torres) is the only woman in a position of power. The other female characters are, by and large, paralegals and secretaries; the up-and-coming associates are uniformly male and white.

For this reason, Harvey's secretary Donna (Sarah Rafferty) and the overachieving paralegal Rachel Zane (Meghan Mark) are the show's most compelling characters. Mike, a white man, is a powerful lawyer though he doesn't deserve to be; both Donna, who's smarter than anyone around her, and Rachel, blocked from law school by a poor LSAT score, deserve to be more than the system permits.

It's not a coincidence that the firm's name sounds a lot like "piercin' hard man." The story's obsession with masculinity (tinged, it has to be said, with a slight touch of homophobia) carries through in show's villain, Louis Litt (Rick Hoffman).

Harvey collects autographed baseballs and basketballs—in case you missed the point, characters refer to them as "Harvey's Balls"—while Louis likes the ballet and off-Broadway plays. The female staffers adore Harvey, but they loathe Louis; the associates fear Louis and emulate Harvey; beautiful women of all sorts follow Harvey about, but Louis only has one date, and she slaps him in the face and stalks away. Louis will never shake the curse of being, well, who he is. His operatic desperation, paranoia, and jealousy make him the most satisfactory TV villain since Jonathan Harris created Dr. Smith in the original Lost in Space.

A big law firm is a fascinating world in itself, as readers of Louis Auchincloss novels have long known. In that regard, it should be a paradise for storytellers. Suits tries to do for that world what Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey have done for the lost world of the country house. At Pearson Hardman, mere clients come and go; but Harvey and Louis, or Rachel and Donna, are, like Mr. Carson or Rose, of the immortals.