Imagine you're a Hollywood scriptwriter, and you're pitching an idea for a new TV show—a courtroom dramedy with a 62-year-old frumpy female lawyer as your protagonist. That's the first strike against you: TV and the movies have not been kind to aging women (Betty White's enduring popularity notwithstanding). Then the actress playing the role steps into the room and describes her character as an "unglamorous, rumpled, befuddled curmudgeon." Strike two. How fast can they say no to this pitch?
But they don't, because you're David E. Kelley, one of the most respected writers in TV history, winner of 10 primetime Emmy Awards, and the mastermind behind such acclaimed series as Boston Legal, The Practice and Ally McBeal. And the woman playing the ornery attorney? Oscar winner Kathy Bates.
Those are two main reasons that NBC execs bit on Harry's Law, and two reasons they brought it back for a second season this fall, starting tonight (Wednesdays, 9/8c). They're certainly the reasons I watched the premiere season, but they weren't enough to keep me coming back—or looking forward to season two. That took something more, and Harry's Law—like many of Kelley's previous shows—has it.
Kelley has often tackled important current and sometimes controversial topics. The Practice, which aired 1997-2004, took some swipes at the Catholic sexual abuse scandals, and Catholic League president Bill Donohue cried foul on several occasions. Through the years, Kelley has also addressed justice issues, and that's never been more apparent than with Harry's Law.
A once-successful but now-fed-up patent attorney, Harriet Korn is fired from her well-paying gig and decides to start anew—in an abandoned shoe store in a Cincinnati ghetto. Despite having no background in criminal law, she wastes no time in defending "the least of these"—in the pilot episode, a troubled but bright-and-promising young man facing his third drug offense, and a "private security officer" after he shoots a man who is attempting to rob a local Laundromat. The security officer, a twenty-something African-American male, initially appears to be a gang-banger, but is actually in the neighborhood "protection" business—promising to keep the locals safe, for a fee. Harry and new assistant Adam, an up-and-coming lawyer who shares Harry's passion, procure second chances for both young men, who are soon on their way to better lives.
That theme continues through season one's 12 episodes, as Harry and Adam defend an 87-year-old woman who commits armed robbery for food; an inmate serving life for a murder he didn't commit; an overweight woman who is suing multiple fast-food giants (their defense argument is surprisingly compelling); an employee who claims he was wrongfully terminated because he was too old; and even a drag queen who was fired from her gig at a local bar. Outside of the courtroom, Harry comes to the aid of an egocentric attorney in need of some image adjustment, of immigrants seeking a better life, and of a kid wanting to escape a gang.
In addition to justice, there is also plenty of grace. Barney Fife was always ready to "throw the book at 'em," but Andy Griffith often had a more reasonable—and less of a knee-jerk—solution, full of grace and with an eye to reforming the perpetrator. Ditto Harry.
Harry's Law has some unlikely scenarios—a single white woman setting up a law office in a dangerous part of town, for starters—and a few overly theatrical and/or sappily sentimental courtroom speeches. But the show still manages to work. Kelley still has the touch, and Bates still has that onscreen magic.
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