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In which TV shows about lawyers are surprisingly different

Suits

Lately I’ve watching three different TV shows about lawyers. The light and fun Franklin and Bash, the gritty conspiracy of The Firm and the glossy character drama that is Suits. They all take completely different approaches to the genre, but they’re all good, just in different ways. It’s an impressive demonstration of just how much variety you can generate from a simple enough concept, so I thought I’d talk a little about each show, how they work, and why I like them.

Franklin and Bash

There’s a clear line that can be traced between Franklin and Bash and Ally McBeal, passing through Boston Legal on the way. All three offer the same quirky, take on the legal world. Cases are unusual, clients are eccentric, and the day is won by scene stealing courtroom antics and inspirational speeches. What makes Franklin and Bash different is the other half of the show, where Allie McBeal spliced its legal comedy with the chick flick, and Boston Legal mixed it with liberal intellectualism, Franklin and Bash instead goes for the fratboy bromance, and it’s  a surprisingly successful combination.

Peter Franklin and Jared Bash are two teenagers who never grew up. They drink, they chase women, they make stupid jokes and they screw around. They’re low rent ambulance chasers who suddenly find themselves working at a major law firm. It’s exactly the kind of premise that exists only in the mind of TV executives, it shouldn’t work, but it does. Most of it rests on the charisma of the leads, Breckin Meyer and Mark-Paul Gosselaar have an easygoing chemistry that makes the silly jokes and pranks just work. They’re completely silly and totally ridiculous, but they’re also fun and charming.

Malcom McDowell is also a highlight, his eccentric, philandering, zen like boss seems specifically constructed to steal every scene he’s in. When they cut to him and he’s finishing an anecdote with “Now I’m not saying it was the Mongolian Death Worm, but something ate our camel.” It isn’t a surreal interlude, it’s business as normal.

It’s not the kind of show I make a date to watch, and any time it tries to be remotely tense, dramatic or character driven it falls flat on its face. But when it admits what it is Franklin and Bash is relaxing, fun, and delivers a few quality laugh out loud moments a week.

The Firm

The Firm is everything that Franklin and Bash is not. It’s tense, it’s complicated, it’s dark and dramatic. It’s technically a sequel to the 1993 film, but that backstory doesn’t actually come up much. Instead it simply takes the characters from the film and runs them through a thematically similar story. The gist of it is Mich McDeere is a lawyer with a terrible taste in firms, because every time he joins one he seems to get embroiled in a grand conspiracy. This conspiracy, told with some very elaborate use of flash forwards, forms the plot arc for the series, but the meat of the episodes are dominated by Mitch’s day to day lawyering.

Oddly enough, this is often the more interesting part of the series. The individual cases are characterised by the same dark, comprimised morality that drives the story arch, and are filled with interesting legal technicalities. Mitch is constantly backed into a corner, trying to balance what is right for his client, what is morally right, and what is legal. The conspiracy itself is slower to build, but the conflict between the homicidal Kevin Stack and voice of reason Alex Clarke gives it more substance than just a vague malevolent threat. The Firm manages to be compelling viewing even without resorting to constant cliffhangers, which makes it a little disappointing that it so frequently does.

The highlight is undoubtedly Callum Keith Rennie as Ray McDeere, Mitch’s brother and Private Investigator. He’s a former convict trying to go straight and a staring middle aged suburban life in the face. His dubiously legal investigations and complex network of contacts and favours make him a compelling character, to the extent that he often overshadows his more straight laced brother. Sometimes I think I should be watching a series about him instead.

Sadly The Firm has been cancelled after a single series. This could be a good think though, the story arc works better as a one off arc. If Mitch started getting tangled in yet another vast conspiracy next year, it would start to become a little ridiculous.

Suits

If Franklin and Bash is legal comedy at it’s most eccentric, and The Firm is legal drama at it’s grittiest, then Suits charts a happy medium between the two. It’s the kind of glossy, high concept show that’d become very popular lately. All tight, well crafted plots and interesting characters, but with no pretensions of high art. It’s a style I have a tremendous weakness for, which is probably why it’s my favourite of the bunch.

Suits is ostensibly about Mike Ross, a young slacker with tremendous intellect who is given the chance to become an associate at a prestigious firm, as long as no-one finds out he doesn’t actually have a law degree. That elevator pitch might have gotten it past the network, but as far as the show itself goes, that only really serves to motivate Mike, and only really for the first series. By the second this high concept takes a back seat to a narrative about power struggles within the firm.The show really benefits from this, because it takes the focus off Mike and onto the excellent ensemble cast.

It’s not that Patrick J Adams isn’t great as Ross, it’s just that Gabriel Macht is just as good as morally ambiguous attorney Harvey Spector, and so is Gina Torres as his icily confident boss, Jessica Pearson. Even Rick Hoffman’s obnoxious Louis Litt, who at first appears to be a pointlessly antagonistic office asshole, grows in stature and sympathy as the series goes on. The recent mock trial episode let this aspect of the show really shine, with the characters forced onto different sides their conflicting beliefs, styles and loyalties are brought into focus.

Suits’ great strength is its refusal to settle into predictable patterns. Spector is both an arrogant bully and a charasmatic do gooder, often at the same time. Sometimes Mike stands up for the little guy, sometimes he has to knock them down. It helps that most of the cases in the show are corporate in nature, rather than criminal, which allows for a wider moral grey area. That’s what I like most about this show. The writers have seen all the same stories you have, they know what works and what doesn’t, and they know how to keep things fresh while sticking to their genre.

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