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Obsessive, Compulsive, Procedural #4: ‘Harry’s Law’

Obsessive, Compulsive, Procedural #4: ‘Harry’s Law’

Harry’s Law

Created by David E. Kelley

imdb, NBC, Wednesday at 9PM

1.01 Pilot
Directed by Bill D’Elia
Written by David E. Kelley

2.01 Hosanna Roseanna
Directed by Bill D’Elia
Written by David E. Kelley

2.02 There Will Be Blood
Directed by Bill D’Elia
Written by David E. Kelley

2.03 Sins of the Father
Directed by Mike Listo
Written by David E. Kelley

2.06 The Rematch
Directed by Michael Katleman
Written by David E. Kelley, Amanda Johns and Susan Dickes

Harry’s Law is a fantastic example how you can kill a procedural by changing its status quo.

Procedural fans generally resist changes to the status quo. Sherlock Holmes lives at 221B Baker Street in London, Columbo drives a crappy 1959 Peugot convertible, Quincy lives on a boat. Messing with these sacred cows draws nothing but howls of outrage.

There are two exceptions.

When the series is a star vehicle, you can sometimes get away with changing a few details to refresh the series, like moving Jessica Fletcher from Cabot Cove to New York in season eight of Murder She Wrote. In that particular example, the change not only rejuvenated the series, it also got rid of the “Cabot Cove syndrome” of Jessica tripping over dead bodies in her backyard, so it was welcomed by the fans.

In the case of an ensemble cast like Law and Order and CSI where the emphasis is on the team of mystery solvers rather than one individual, you can refresh the show by changing the cast. (Law and Order rather famously changed its cast almost every season.)

Beween its first and second season, Harry’s Law changed its sets and almost its entire cast. Each individual change taken by itself seems like an improvement, but all the changes taken as whole destroy the fragile raison d’être of the show. This is a shame, because the first 13 episodes of Harry’s Law were something rather unique in television history.

The pilot episode of Harry’s Law is one of the most preposterous set-ups in the history of procedurals. Harriet “Harry” Korn (Kathy Bates), a patent lawyer, is fired from her corporate law firm. In the space of the same day, she is struck by a car driven by young lawyer Adam Branch (Nate Corddry), taken to hospital, released from hospital unhurt, returns to the corner where she was hit, only to be crushed by would-be suicide Malcolm Davies (Aml Ameen) jumping from the top of the building on the corner, taken back to hospital, released from hospital unhurt again, returns back to the ill-fated corner and decides to rent the ground floor of the building that Malcolm jumped off of to open a neighbourhood law practice.

Much to Harry’s surprise (and her claimed annoyance) she is eventually joined by her assistant from her old firm, Jenna Backstrom (Brittany Snow), as well as Adam and Malcolm. This gives Harry a complete if skeletal law practice: one head lawyer (Harry), one associate (Adam), one paralegal (Malcolm) and one legal secretary (Jenna). When Harry needs an investigator in the first season, her resource is frequent client Damien Winslow (Johnny Ray Gill), who runs a protection racket in the neighbourhood.

The key point is that none of the five are doing jobs that they are qualified for. Harry and Adam are trained for corporate civil law, not criminal law, Malcolm is a very green paralegal, and Damien is a street criminal, not a private investigator. Jenna may be the most qualified for her job, but she is massively multi-tasking – keeping the doors of the law practice open by selling the shoes left-over from the previous tenant’s inventory. This group of characters is the Island of Misfit Toys as a law practice.

It’s not just that the firm are a group of underdogs. They are in a city (Cincinnati) which is an underdog city. And the neighbourhood they are in is a rundown community which is under-serviced and ignored by the city. In short, they are a group of underdog lawyers, for an underdog firm, working for underdog clients from an underdog neighbourhood in an underdog city.

There have been street level law-firm procedurals before, with the Canadian Street Legal being the most successful, but most of these shows feature successful lawyers choosing to leave their high-end law-firms to open a street-level firm. And just as they choose to leave the penthouse for the streets, they can choose to go back: Franklin and Bash starts that way, Storefront Lawyer did it half-way through its first and only season. Even in Street Legal, there is never a sense that the lawyers are as desperate as the community that they are serving.

Because the law has turned its back on the community that she now lives in, Harry frequently finds herself defending clients who broke the law for reasons of necessity. As an example, unlike most protection rackets, Damien Winslow delivers a real service to his community, because the police simply don’t protect the neighbourhood. For Damien, “911 Is a Joke” isn’t just his reality, it’s his company jingle.

Since the majority of her clients are basically guilty, Harry’s main tactic is jury nullification – convincing juries to ignore the law and release her clients. It’s the “but we had a really, really, really good reason” defence. Or, to quote Charles Dickens from Oliver Twist, “If the law supposes that,” said Mr. Bumble, … “the law is a ass—a idiot. If that’s the eye of the law, the law is a bachelor; and the worst I wish the law is that his eye may be opened by experience—by experience.”

Of course, you can’t flout the law and call it “a ass” week after week without consequences. To the show’s credit, Harry has frequently had to defend her tactics, narrowly avoiding getting disbarred on one occasion in the first season and arrested by over-zealous D.A. Roseanna Remmick (Jean Smart) at the conclusion of “Hosanna Roseanna” at the start of the second season for jury tampering – a novel description of Harry’s jury nullification tactic.

In the second season of Harry’s Law, investigator Damien Winslow, paralegal Malcolm Davies and secretary Jenna Backstrom are all gone, replaced by lawyer Thomas Jefferson (Christopher McDonald), lawyer Cassie Reynolds (Karen Olivo) and lawyer Oliver Richard (Mark Valley). The issue isn’t that the cast has rotated so much, it’s that the law firm is no longer out-numbered and out-gunned. Harry still has paralegals and secretaries, but they no longer have roles in the show, they just smoothly operate in the background. Even though Adam Branch is still with the show, he is now safely Harry’s shadow rather than the firm’s only other lawyer – frequently challenged by the cases that Harry delegates to him.

At the start of the second season, the law firm moves from its ground floor, shoe store location to the second floor, both literally and figuratively rising above the neighbourhood. In the first year, Harry had a desk. Now she has an office. Significantly, one of the new lawyers (Oliver) used to work for the corporate law firm that fired Harry.

In short, Harry now has a real law firm.

To keep Harry the underdog, the show has to up the ante on its cases and on Harry’s opponents. In the first three episodes of the second season, Harry defends Eric Sanders (Alfred Molina) a man accused of killing his wife. In the first season, Eric would have been a poor man from the neighbourhood who could barely afford to hire Harry. In the second season, Eric is a rich schmuck who goes to court with Harry, Adam, Cassie and Oliver to defend him and he pays well enough that Harry can afford to hire a real private detective Vinnie Delgata (Frank Renzulli) to investigate the case.

Jean Smart’s Roseanna Remmick makes a terrific opponent for Harry. She is so over the top in her evilness, I keep expecting Harry to throw a glass of water in Roseanna’s face to see if she melts. But the series undercuts Roseanna’s evil authority by having her literally outnumbered 4 to 1 by Harry’s team of lawyers.

The series also seems to miscalculate by humanizing Roseanna in “The Rematch.” Harry is up to her old tricks, looking for a jury nullification to save her client Josh “Puck” Peyton (Paul McCrane) from a charge of aiding and abetting a kidnapper. Puck was her prosecutorial adversary in the first season until he had a nervous breakdown in court. In private practice, he negotiated the release of a kidnapped girl only to be arrested by the police (once the girl was safe) for helping the kidnapper get his money.

Puck has perhaps violated the rules he once held so dear because of Harry’s influence, or Harry suspects, his nervous breakdown was caused by Puck’s guilt over his by-the-book handling of a previous kidnapping case which lead to the kidnapped child’s death.

When Harry chastises Roseanna for so vigorously pursuing the case against her former colleague, Roseanna unexpectedly makes an extraordinarily convincing argument that Puck would be better served to be convicted of the crime, because that would validate his decision in the first case. Being acquitted (as Puck eventually is) will probably make Puck feel worse about his original decision not better.

This is a great dramatic point and it fits with the idea that all great villains believe that they are heroes of their own story, that they are justified in their actions. Still the ending of that episode tastes like bitter ashes as does the ending of the Eric Sanders trial in “Sins of the Father.” It’s possible that David E. Kelley is giving Harry unsatisfying victories as part of a larger narrative, but in the process of doing so, he has robbed Harry’s Law of what made it unique.

I have seen this second season of Harry’s Law before, call it Cincinnati Legal or Harry’s Practice, but I have never seen the Island of Misfit Toys-style beleaguered law practice of the first season, and I miss it.

Michael Ryan

View more articles in Mike’s “Obsessive, Compulsive, Procedural’ column