Once an industry standard for new dramas, the two-hour premiere has become rare enough to acquire an alarming air; as with 10-minute film trailers or wildly enthusiastic blind-date suggestions, one quickly catches the underlying whiff of desperation. And indeed, NBC's new legal thriller "The Firm" is so front-loaded for success — John Grisham! Josh Lucas! Juliette Lewis! — that even two hours feel uncomfortably crammed, with back story and B-plot, family drama and legalese, potential conspiracies and sentimental posturing. One doesn't so much watch the premiere of "The Firm" as thread through it, sideways, as if navigating a hoarder's living room.
Although it opens with a fast-paced chase scene, things quickly bog down with flashbacks and all manner of story lines, none of which seem to be dominant or terribly compelling. To be fair, Grisham and co-creator Lukas Reiter have a lot of explaining to do. This is the sequel to the novel/feature film "The Firm," picking up 10 years after lawyer-turned-whistle blower Mitchell McDeere (Lucas) and his wife Abby (Molly Parker) fled Memphis after bringing down a highfalutin firm that turned out to be a front for the mob. Although in the film Mitchell managed to do this in a way that neither broke a law nor betrayed the gangsters (he "got" the firm on over-billing), there is no rest for the just man. We quickly learn that the head of the mob was arrested in the fallout and a hit arranged on McDeere, forcing him, Abby and eventually their young daughter into the witness protection program — from which they have just emerged because, we are told too many times to count, they are tired of running.
Oddly enough, they have chosen Washington, D.C., as their "low-profile" home. There, Mitchell has started his own firm, which consists of himself, his ex-con brother Ray (Callum Keith Rennie) and Ray's chain-smokin', miniskirt-wearin' girlfriend Tammy (Lewis, having way more fun than anyone else in the cast). The FBI thinks this is a bad idea; the head of the mob may have died in jail, but his son has taken over and McDeere is probably No. 1 on his to-do list. McDeere is, apparently, less worried about the safety of his family than he is about his career — he is not making any money, possibly because he is taking on so many pro bono cases, including a young woman accused of murdering an old one, and a young man accused of knifing a schoolmate. The first case is never explained and all but dropped until the very end of the pilot while the second provides what passes as an A-plot, establishing the nature of McDeere's integrity (impeccable, bordering on saintly) and revealing the soft, squishy underbelly of the show.
Having thrown the dice with the Comic-Con crowd ("Heroes," "The Event"), NBC can be forgiven an attempt to reinstate itself with a more mature demographic, but time is an untrustworthy oddsmaker. John Grisham may be one of the biggest pop-lit brands around, but as Stephen King fans can tell you, this does not guarantee good television. It isn't the flashbacks or muddled storytelling, the liberal white moralizing or ridiculous inconsistencies that threaten to deep-six "The Firm," it's the washed-out sepia tone of the legal thriller itself.
When Grisham wrote "The Firm," the idea of using the law as off-road terrain for action and suspense was new and exciting. But that was 20 years ago, 20 years filled with legal shows as diverse as "L.A. Law," "The Practice," "Boston Legal," "Law & Order" and "Damages" (Reiter was a producer on the three in the middle), 20 years in which the nature of hero and suspense and even family have changed dramatically. If "The Firm" were written now, McDeere would have discovered the titular establishment was run by vampires or terrorists or at least Patty Hewes. In a post-"24" and "Dexter" world, a threat from "the mob" seems almost as quaint as the idea of justice achieved through canny litigation.
Like so many reboots, "The Firm" is a waste of precious resources, especially its cast. Lucas does his blue-eyed best to make us care, but his McDeere has no edge, neither the overweening ambition of the Tom Cruise version nor the bitter weariness one might expect to rise in its place after a decade on the run. As Abby, Parker is given less than nothing to do save offer her husband contradictory pep talks, while Ray and Tammy seem to have wandered away from an unsuccessful audition for "Justified."
There is, of course, the chance that, having dispensed with all the exposition and explanation, "The Firm" will settle down and become a solid procedural hybrid, in which each episode includes a case that is resolved and bits of the larger story — presumably how McDeere got from joining the new (and clearly evil) firm he encounters at the end of the premiere to being chased by goons through streets and fountains. A sort of "Damages" meets "The Good Wife."
The question is, do we need such a show when we have "Damages" and "The Good Wife"? It may be ironic to call a legal thriller created by the man who all but invented the legal thriller derivative, but in this case, it feels very much like the truth.