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Television review: 'Fairly Legal' offers a fresh twist on the legal show

Sarah Shahi stars as the anti-lawyer: smart, unpredictable and with issues of her own.

January 20, 2011|By Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times Television Critic
  • Sarah Shahi stars as Kate Reed in "Farily Legal" on USA Network.
Sarah Shahi stars as Kate Reed in "Farily Legal" on USA Network. (David Moir / USA Network )

USA continues its rather remarkable winning streak with "Fairly Legal," an energetically delightful dramedy about a San Francisco mediator played by Sarah Shahi, which premieres Thursday. Shahi, last seen on the short-lived but wonderful "Life," is Kate Reed, a former attorney so unpredictable she wears Christian Louboutins but lives on a boat and so frustrated by the law that she becomes a mediator. As such, she uses her considerable capacity for empathetic diplomacy to help people solve their own problems — in early episodes these include corporate mergers and the size of parking spaces — outside the stuffy and legally hamstrung court system.

The anti-lawyer lawyer show. It's a nifty trick by creator Michael Sardo ("Wings," "Caroline in the City") and a terrific idea — to neatly detach all the human elements that make courtroom dramas so delicious from the increasingly worn-thin "objection, your Honor" scenes. Not that there aren't still a few gavels knocking about — Gerald McRaney appears occasionally as a judge who is Kate's nemesis/father figure. Because as the action opens, Kate's famous attorney father has died and Kate finds herself now working for the new other Reed of the firm "Reed & Reed" — her young, lovely and tough as nails step-mother, Lauren (Virginia Williams.)

But Lauren's no more a predictable trophy wife than Kate's a predictable young attorney and as they fight to keep clients from abandoning the firm, the two women exchange stinging barbs, but the cattiness is kept to a merciful minimum. If nothing else, Lauren realizes that Kate can do things that no one else can.

Every miracle worker needs a support team and Kate's includes Leonardo (Baron Vaughn), a Dungeons & Dragons-playing fanboy assistant, her new-dad younger brother (Ethan Embry) and her soon-to-be-ex-husband Justin ("Battlestar Galactica's" Michael Trucco) who also happens to be an assistant district attorney. The three men manage to come through with all the emotional support and necessary props — an incriminating file, a Buffy the Vampire Slayer watch — that allow Kate to convince people that a compromise of their own construction is, 9 times out of 10, a better option than a decision made by a judge or a jury.

It's actually a fine and refreshing message and "Fairly Legal" is bit weightier, in terms of themes and issues, than some of the other shows in USA's increasingly terrific lineup. Each episode includes at least two self-contained stories — in the pilot, the A-plot involves a father, played by Ken Howard, who has suddenly gotten cold feet about turning his clothing company over to his son — but they often overlap with other thematic elements and/or each other.

Like "White Collar" or "Royal Pains," "Fairly Legal" deftly balances the procedural elements with the ongoing narrative arcs of the characters, but in an unexpectedly philosophical way. Kate is dealing with romantic issues and Daddy issues, of course, but her story goes deeper than the usual "who am I and why can't I find love?" personal journey. As she juggles the desire for justice (and the commitment the firm has to its clients), Kate is asking the central question of any mature society: At what point do the needs of the individual outweigh the rules of an institution, even one designed to protect the individual? And she's actually asking it, sometimes point blank.

The "Fairly Legal" writers manage to make this intellectually formidable centerpiece lively and intriguing and Shahi, whose timing is just as exceptional as her looks, makes it funny and sexy. The rest of the cast give us characters who may have started off stock but quickly become multilayered and, like the show itself, capable of all manner of surprises.

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