USA has a real curiosity on its hands. Coming to you tonight is a new show, Fairly Legal, and what’s curious about it is that I’m not in love with it yet. As you may now, I’m a big fan of everything USA has out there (though White Collar distanced itself from me with that last episode), and their new shows usually have me hooked long before I even get a chance to see them. I’m willing to give this one a chance, even though the first few episodes are rather rough, but just the fact that I’m not already completely invested makes it USA‘s poorest showings in quite a while.
Kate Reed (Sarah Shahi – The L Word, Life) has a fairly complicated life, and she’s made her goal to remove the complications from the lives of others. She’s a mediator. Recently a litigator (the show description says, “top litigator,” but I’m not sure I’m convinced), Kate was frustrated with the system at large, and decided to move to a different area of the legal cosmos.
She works at the massive law firm her father built, but he’s just passed away, and stepmommie dearest, Lauren (Virginia Williams) is running the show. We jump into the show with the fallout from Dad’s death not quite resolved yet, mainly in the sense of not being sure which clients are going to stick around, and Kate and Lauren have much to resolve about the positions they now find themselves in as well.
Adding to Kate’s complications, her ex-husband, Justin (Michael Trucco), isn’t very “ex”. In fact, he seems far removed from any category most people would think of as “ex” anything. He’s also a lawyer in the D.A.’s office. Thus, yet another spin on the legal show “dating the other side” gambit.
The only thing that isn’t complicated about Kate’s life is her tech-savvy assistant, Leonardo (Baron Vaughn). He keeps the balls in the air while Kate scurries about solving the disputes of everyone from giant corporations to the inane and insane squabbles that ought to be on reality court television, and everything in-between.
The series sets up fairly well actually, and the trip on the ferry does a lot of work in terms of putting us in the right frame of mind. New York, yes, but we aren’t getting there by way of sped-up clips of masses of people, throwing the hustle and bustle in our faces. No, Kate lives on a boat, and it’s leisurely ride on the open water to work. It’s hectic and crazy once we get there, but Kate is only going to it, she isn’t part of it.
There’s even a certain amount of charm to the character relationships (though, stripped down, there is a lot of Covert Affairs going on here), but I’m not sure the underlying theory of the show can survive. The main stumbling block for the show, I think, comes right at us out of the gates, when Kate resolves the “dispute” that is a robbery of a convenience store. Jumping in between store owner and robber, Kate wants to “work out” the situation, and come to a mutually beneficial resolution, so everyone will be happy. While there may be aspects of the show that resonate with viewers, and can pull us into Kate’s life and all its (for lack of a better word) drama, that’s just stupid.
One scene isn’t likely to seal the coffin on any show, but with this one given to us so prominently, so early, and clearly with such an effort toward delivering Kate to us, it may not only be hard to get past, but it rather implies we’ll be subject to this with some regularity.
Kate may win out, and the show may pull in a decent number of fans (USA has the track record for it), but I don’t think the show is putting its best foot forward with the pilot. Not only do we have the robbery situation, but we aren’t long into the show before a judge has not only ordered Kate (out of nowhere, by summons, her having no knowledge of the case) to mediate a case so it doesn’t have to take up his time, he also orders her to come to a resolution by the following morning, or be found in contempt. Sorry, that’s just stupid as well.
If the show has a chance, it has to focus on that girl on the ferry (without going quite so maudlin about dear old dad), and how she finds a way to work in the legal system holding to her own idiom. There are hints of that in the first few episodes, but I almost get the impression the show is hesitant to be that show. Instead, while we see that show in there somewhere, what we actually get is a compilation of zaniness and opportunities for Kate to throw mediation at the world. I’m not real interested in that show.
The show is big on its tagline – Less lawyer, More appeal. Well, we’ll see.
Below check out a promo and a couple of clips from the premiere.
Premiere Clip #1
Premiere Clip #2
FAIRLY LEGAL stars Sarah Shahi (“Life,” “The L Word”) Michael Trucco (“Battlestar Galactica,” “Castle”), Virginia Williams (“Revenge of the Bridesmaids,” “How I Met Your Mother”) and Baron Vaughn (“The Other Guys,” “Law & Order”). Shot on location in Vancouver, BC, the series will premiere with a 90-minute episode followed by nine, one-hour episodes.
FAIRLY LEGAL centers on Kate Reed (Shahi), a top litigator who became frustrated with the endless bureaucracy and injustice she witnessed on a daily basis and decided to become the ultimate anti-lawyer: a mediator. Using her knowledge of the law, along with intuition and a whatever-it-takes approach to resolving conflict, Kate finds the middle ground for a wide variety of adversaries — from Fortune 500 corporations to bitter divorcees. After the death of her father, she finds herself at odds with her new boss, her stepmother Lauren (Williams)…and in bed with her soon-to-be ex-husband Justin (Trucco), himself a lawyer in the DA’s office. Helping her keep all of this chaos at bay is her trusted, geek-chic assistant Leonardo (Vaughn).
Recurring guest stars include Richard Dean Anderson (“Stargate SG-1,” “MacGyver”) in the role of David Smith, a man who has a mysterious connection to Kate’s late father; Ethan Embry (“Brotherhood,” “House, M.D.”) portrays Spencer, Kate’s younger brother and a new father; and Gerald McRaney as Judge Nicastro, who has no tolerance for Kate’s lack of regard for the legal establishment. Other guest stars this season include Ken Howard, Peter MacNicol, Clyde Kusatsu and Anne-Marie Johnson.
Can you talk about working with Richard Dean Anderson this season?
S. Shahi Richard is interesting. He’s very quiet, gets very excited when he talks about his daughter, but other than that he and I didn’t really engage too much with each other. There was a lot of mystery surrounding our relationship with one another on the show, and I think we kind of kept that for ourselves off screen as well just because it helped on screen.
What were some of the biggest challenges for you in bringing this character of Kate to life on screen in this show?
S. Shahi There were a couple. By the way, I like that question. I’ve done so many interviews so far and nobody has ever asked that question. One of the challenges was, for me, this is a character who just goes on her heart. She becomes so involved with the people that she’s dealing with, whether it’s in her personal life or it’s a working relationship.
The challenge was/is allowing myself as an actor to allow Kate to be emotional about it, but then at the same time she had to be professional. A note that I was constantly getting from certain producers were, “You need to be more business-like. You need to be more business-like,” but I think that’s the opposite of this character. That’s why people like her; she’s so anti-business. She’s so anti-corporate. There’s nothing about her that’s business necessarily.
I think the struggle with her is just trying to find that balance between what are the things that she does that she just runs with her emotions on, and then what are the things she has more of a business approach. It turns out that there wasn’t a lot that had a business approach. The beauty of this character is that she is so emotional. She gets caught up so much with what she does, and a lot of times she gets in trouble for it and her head doesn’t necessarily always follow what her heart tells her to do.
Fairly Legal is kind of a new take on the lawyer genre. I just want to know, how familiar were you with a mediator before you joined?
S. Shahi Not very. I actually didn’t even know what a mediator was when I auditioned for the show. I thought it was like a lawyer that didn’t pass the bar so they are just a mediator. But to me with this character it was not important to hover down as a mediator because if anything she’s the anti-corporate corporate girl. To me it was important to get to the heart, to understand her passion. Why she fights so hard for the things that she believes in. Why she is somewhat childlike in her personal relationship. For me, that was the most important. It wasn’t necessarily, “Do I think this is what it’s like as a real mediator?” It was more important for me to get her heart.
Can you talk about the relationship between Kate and Leonardo and what that dynamic brings to the show?
S. Shahi Yes, Kate and Leo, he’s the only one there in the show that doesn’t quite fawn over Kate. We were very careful when making the show to try not to present a blank persona. We wanted somebody who could fail, who had flaws. This Leo character and Kate, they have a very brotherly sisterly relationship, and he’s the kind of guy who knows her better than she knows herself. He knows what she’s going to do two steps before she does it. So it’s actually been pretty great to have somebody like that on her side.
What can you tease about her love life in the first season? I know in the pilot episode she’s sort of with her ex-husband. So what can you tease about what’s coming up?
S. Shahi Well, the tease is, I guess—the finale is incredible, a lot of unexpected things happen in the finale. I love the finale; it’s my favorite episode. But it’s more exploration of the dynamics of her and Justin. It’s like when we first meet them he is her soon to be ex-husband, so at one point I’m presented with divorce papers, but I don’t know if I want to sign them or not.
So it’s interesting because a lot of times in TV shows, the dynamic between the male and female lead is sort of a will they won’t they, but this time it’s the opposite. It’s they already have and they’ve kind of fallen apart. So now the exploration is will they or won’t they get back together? Will they or won’t they get divorced? So that’s sort of the biggest relationship tease in the story. Then there’s just more sort of unexpected and sort of out of control—Kate’s like a tornado sometimes the way she kind of comes in and settles situations, so definitely a lot more tornados.
In watching the first episode, you can see that Kate has a strange relationship with her stepmother. How do you see that relationship evolving throughout the series?
S. Shahi It doesn’t evolve much beyond what you see. Kate is very straightforward. In the pilot where she says, “I thought my mother made him happy and then he met you so I don’t know what to do about that so I hate you. It’s simpler that way.” I can’t believe I just recited those lines from the pilot. That was so long ago. Kate has a lot of reasons for not liking her stepmother. She took her father away and now her father’s dead so if anything for Kate she blames her father’s loss on her stepmother. We do have to work together at some point, Lauren and Kate, so there is a bit of a nicer exchange that happens between the two of them, but as far as that relationship evolving, I think in Kate’s mind, Lauren would have to drop dead before she liked her.
You had mentioned earlier on the call that you were a little maybe hesitant about getting back into TV or not necessarily looking to get into TV, and I was wondering if you could just talk a little more about that.
S. Shahi I had just come off of a show called Life where we worked for two seasons for 18 hours a day, and we ended up getting cancelled, so I kind of had a bitter taste in my mind about TV. I also worked up until I was six and a half months pregnant on the show, and they didn’t reduce my hours until later on in my pregnancy. So I just wasn’t sure if this was something that do I want to get back into this kind of schedule again, and especially now that I have a child to take care of, and still not really feel the love from the audience or the network. It’s that that I just was not sure of.
When I went into my meeting with Michael Sardo and Steve Stark and I just said, “Look, I’m flattered that you guys want me for this, but I’m at a different place where I’ve done this before and I didn’t really get much back in terms of recognition from the work.” It was going to be a much different case for me this time around because I had had a baby and the stakes were just so much higher. I don’t know if you have kids, but when I have to spend a moment away from my kid, it better be worth it.
So that’s kind of how I felt about it this time. It was like if I’m going to commit myself to another season of television with these hours and this work schedule, I want to be a big dog. I don’t want to just be another actor for hire with it. If they just wanted me to be the actor who comes to work, delivers the lines, and then beyond that I didn’t have any sort of creative say, meanwhile being the title role, it was not something I wanted to do.
You talked about in Life you were a lead character and you’ve had these roles, but this is a series that’s really built around your character. What feels different about that? Do you feel more responsibility or anything different about having a series based around your character?
S. Shahi There is more responsibility. Thank God, I’ve had a—knock on wood—long career in episodic television so as far as the hours were concerned that really was something I was very comfortable with actually. It’s funny, I did a sitcom one time and I didn’t know how to react at all when I had the time off. I was like, “What is this?” By the way, can you hear me because my gardeners here? But yes, I felt really odd being on a sitcom and getting off at three every day. I was like, “What do I do with my time? This is really weird.” Being on an episodic is like being home in a way. It’s weird.
It was just a lot more responsibility in terms of I felt like I had to look after, in a way, all the character’s story lines, of course. I say this very loosely. Michael Sardo and Steve Stark and the network have been so gracious and generous with making me a part of the creative process so I was careful not to push those boundaries, but I’m sure I will next year. But yes, there was a lot of responsibility because I feel like the show has a certain amount of integrity and we wanted to obtain that within all the story lines.
I was just reading online, and you never know for sure about these things online, but I was reading you originally moved to Hollywood after the late, great director Robert Altman suggested that you might give it a try. What exactly happened there?
S. Shahi Yes. I always wanted to be an actor, but I wasn’t sure how to do it. I was in a production of Chicago, I sang, and there was this girl that was a background dancer who said, “Why don’t you try out for the Dallas football cheerleaders,” because back in 1995 they were on Saturday Night Live. I thought, “Great. That’s my way in.” I tried out for the Dallas football cheerleaders. I made the team, and Robert Altman decided to come to Texas and use our facilities to shoot Dr. T and the Women.
So he came to the ranch and the cheerleaders, we were all sort of extras, we were background in the movie for about two weeks. I had no idea who he was. For whatever reason, maybe it’s because I didn’t know who he was, he took a liking to me and we hung out with each other every day for two weeks, and he said towards the end, “What is it that you want to do?” I said, “Well, I want to be an actor but I don’t how do it.” He looks at me and he goes, “I think you have what it takes. I think you should move to LA.”
So I went home that night. I Googled him, and from all the movies that he’s done, I’m embarrassed to say the only one I knew about was Popeye. I told my mom through the screen door. She’s in the kitchen and I was in my room, “The guy who directed Popeye is telling me I’ve got a shot.” So we packed up my truck and we moved to LA.
He gave me his mobile number and his office number and he said, “When you get to LA, I want you to call me. I want to help you.” For three months, he and I traded phone calls. We never actually connected, and then by the time I owed him—it was my turn to call him back. At that point, I had been educated on who he was and I told the story enough times around town that people were like, “Really? You and Altman?” After that I was intimidated, and I was like, “Oh my gosh, I don’t know what to say to him anymore,” and I never returned his phone call.
I watched the pilot and I think it’s amazing, and I just had a quick question. It kind of relates back to questions someone else had about you coming back to television, everything after you had your baby, and the decision to do that. What is it about this character that made you want to play her and go after that and give up spending time with your baby and that kind of stuff?
S. Shahi It was her flaws. I knew what I was going to say before you finished your question. Things that I love most about this character are her flaws. I think, often times in TV, they try to put people up who are perfect people. Who kind of have it all figured out and that was, if anything, we wanted to do the opposite of that. We wanted to do somebody who was very confident in their job, but at the same time, she was internally incredibly flawed and had a lot of faults. That’s what I wanted to play.
That was the other thing that I was talking to Michael Sardo and Steve Stark about was that I wasn’t interested in playing a perfect person. I wanted to play somebody who struggled, and because for me, I think that’s real. I think it’s real for people to struggle, and I think it’s refreshing to see a character like that on TV, not a character who’s just willing to sell toothpaste.
Often times TV gets kind of knocked, saying the space in between the commercials. I wanted to make sure that this character was not going to be playing to that. It was, in a sense, going to be representing a real person and some real struggles, and we were going to get a chance to explore that and to see her. To see her fail, to see her try to pick herself back up. That’s was I was interested in playing.
To that same extent then, do you have anything you would want to change about Kate yet or have you gotten enough into her to get to that point?
S. Shahi I don’t know if there’s anything I want to change about Kate right now. She’s mentally and emotionally at a very interesting place. I don’t want to see her evolve quite yet because I think there are more stories to tell with her at where she’s at, but I do, as an actor, like to constantly be surprised. I don’t know what’s in store for her. I don’t know how I’m going to play her, and I enjoy the mystery and I hope I continue to discover her.
When we spoke with Michael Sardo, he mentioned that the opening scene out of all the actors that auditioned for Kate you were the only one that didn’t back away from the gun. Can you tell us about filming that scene?
S. Shahi Yes, I did that in the audition. I felt like this was a character who thrived on conflict. If anything, she gets excited by this kind of stuff, a bit of an adrenaline junky I guess. I figured in that situation the only way you could solve a conflict is by heading towards it.
So for me, that’s what made the most sense. The character was that if this character sees a gun she has the strength and the confidence to believe that she can disarm the situation. Whether or not that’s true, that’s a different story because there are certain story lines where Kate feels like she has the confidence to fix it and if anything she ends up making it worse. But in this situation she does solve it and she solves it by walking towards it so that’s why I made that choice.