Obsessive, Compulsive, Procedural #7: ‘The Firm’ (NBC)

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The Firm

2012, USA

NBC Thursday 10PM

Episode 1.01: “Pilot”

Directed by David Straiton

Written by Lukas Reiter, developed for television by Lukas Reiter, based on the novel The Firm by John Grisham.

With Prime Suspect regretfully cancelled, NBC has decided to fill the Thursday 10PM slot with The Firm and gave us the two hour pilot on Sunday.

Given that Prime Suspect was my favourite new show and my second favourite show on broadcast TV after The Good Wife, The Firm has perhaps an unfair burden to carry. So, let’s not consider it in relation to other procedurals, let’s consider the show in relation to itself. In other words, what part of this shit sandwich that NBC fed us on Sunday is any good?

Well, the foundation of any sandwich is the bread and The Firm is based on a very strong novel by John Grisham – his most popular in fact – and an equally strong 1993 film starring Tom Cruise as the morally conflicted, Harvard educated lawyer Mitch McDeere, who is hired by a high-class law firm only to discover that their number one client is the Mafia, at which point the FBI threatens to make his life hell. Mitch is placed in a no-win situation, if he becomes a witness, he betrays the attorney-client privilege and will be disbarred and if he doesn’t the FBI will arrest him.

Mitch McDeere: Let me get this straight: you want me to steal files from the firm, turn them over to the FBI, send my colleagues to jail…

Wayne Tarrance: They roped you into this.

Mitch McDeere: Breach attorney-client privilege, thus getting myself disbarred for life, then testify in open court against the Mafia…

Wayne Tarrance: Well, unfortunately, Mitch…

Mitch McDeere: Let me ask you something: are you out of your fucking mind?

The Firm (1993)

Mitch doesn’t just have the physical threat of the Mafia to worry about. His firm also places Mitch in moral jeopardy when they send him to the Caribbean on firm business and arrange for him to be seduced by an island prostitute. This is actually one of the few real weaknesses of the film, not because of the situation, but because we are asked to believe that Tom Cruise would cheat on Jeanne Tripplehorn with Karina Lombard, who is pretty, but she doesn’t hold a candle to Jeanne. (Or maybe that’s just me.)

While the original novel is quite good, the film improves on it in several respects.

First, in the film, Mitch confesses his infidelity to his wife Abby. Perhaps as a result of this, Abby is the one who seduces Mitch’s assigned mentor Avery Tolar (Gene Hackman) rather than Tammy Hemphill (Holly Hunter) the secretary to the murdered detective who does it in the book. There is a bit of “turnaround is fair play” here since it was Avery who set up Mitch to be seduced.

While the character of the law firm’s security expert William Devasher is quite malevolent in the book, the film put it over the top by casting Quaker Oats pitchman Wilford Brimley in the part. Brimley sank his teeth into the part, practically twirling his mustache in grumpy glee every time he has to kill someone in the film. The disconnect between Devasher’s villainy and Brimley’s public persona as everyone’s favourite cereal grandfather was quite jarring and added to the sense of danger that pervaded the film.

The greatest improvement in the film over the book is the film’s new ending. In Grisham’s book, Mitch never really finds a way out of his moral quandary. He becomes a witness for the Feds and steals files from the law firm. Then, knowing that the Feds will never protect him properly, Mitch steals money from the firm and takes half of the money that the Feds promised him for testifying. Leaving the Feds the files that they need to make their case, Mitch, Abby, Mitch’s ex-con brother Ray (David Strathairn) and Tammy escape together to the Caribbean.

In the film, Mitch seizes on an ingenious escape from his trap. He turns the law firm in to the Feds for fraudulent over-billing. Since the fraud occurred across state lines, the Feds are able to prosecute for racketeering. And the Mafia clients, rather than being upset at Mitch, are somewhat bemused that they were victims of a crime and that Mitch is acting as their only honest lawyer.

The problem with this foundation is that it is from a film that came out 19 years ago! The Firm‘s pilot recreates neither the book nor the film, it instead acts as a sequel to (mostly) the film starting ten years after the events of the film. Asking the audience to remember the events of a film that came out two decades ago, to understand the TV show seems… well, monumentally stupid.

It doesn’t help that the TV series rewrites the triumphant ending from the film. While not contradicting the events of the film, it adds a coda where Mitch is informed by the Feds that the Mafia have taken a contract out on his life, because the Feds were able to use evidence collected from the Law firm to prosecute Mafia boss Tommy Morolto (Paul Sorvino). Defiant to the end (and with no trust of the Feds), Mitch is only convinced to enter Witness Protection when Abby tells him that she is pregnant.

What makes this especially maddening is that as the show begins, Mitch, Abby and their ten year old daughter Claire are out of Witness Protection having left the program when Tommy Morolto died in prison.

Shall we count all the ways that this is stupid? Just because Tommy is dead doesn’t mean that other members of his Famiglia wouldn’t also want revenge and, in fact, in the pilot, the U.S. Marshalls try to convince Mitch to reenter the program by telling him that Tommy’s son Dominic is now in control of the family. (The fact that Dominic existed might have been something that they should have told Mitch before he left the program.) And if Mitch and Abby entered the program to protect their unborn daughter, why is their ten year old daughter any safer?

More importantly, The Firm is infinitely more interesting if the series starts with Mitch, Abby, Claire, Ray and Tammy still in Witness Protection. Then you would have the conflict of Mitch trying to balance keeping a low profile and properly defending his clients, with Mitch taking cases that gradually draw more and more attention to Mitch and his practice.

The biggest problem with The Firm is that stupidities like this abound. It’s a show with a smart cast whose characters do stupid things. While nowhere near as good as the film cast or the cast of The Good Wife or Prime Suspect, The Firm‘s actors are solid, led by Josh Lucas as Mitch. The other token Yank rounding out the cast is Juliette Lewis, who does a fine job channeling Holly Hunter’s great performance from the film. I say “token Yank” because most of the remaining cast are Canadian including Molly Parker as Abby, Calum Keith Rennie as Ray, not to mention Shaun Majumber and Tricia Helfer playing lawyers at a firm trying to convince Mitch to join them. (It is unclear whether Natasha Calis who plays Claire is Canadian, but she certainly appears to be.)

Speaking of stupidities, why in hell would Mitch and company come within 100 miles of another law firm? More importantly, why would Mitch and Abby be swayed by nice offices and champagne? That is exactly the tactic that the original law firm used on them. If anything pretty offices, champagne and canapés should have sent Mitch and Abby sprinting for the exit.

The stupidity starts from the very first moment of the Pilot as Mitch runs from mysterious thugs, escaping by running across the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, which completely foils the pursuing thugs because of their inability to deal with 3 inches of water. Apparently, Mitch is being pursued by the aliens from M. Night Shyamalan’s film Signs.

After calling Abby to declare a red alert, Mitch meets a mysterious paranoid man in a hotel room. When someone claiming to be hotel security starts banging on the door, the paranoid man panics and defenestrates himself out a ten story window. Leaving us with this cliffhanger, the show skips back six weeks…

If you didn’t catch it right away, they’re doing the first season of Damages, but nowhere near as well. I am not accusing the writers of The Firm of plagiarism, just incompetence and moronic chutzpah. Why on Earth would you try to copy the structure of a multiple Emmy award winning legal procedural? There is no one in the cast of The Firm who are even close to being as good as Glenn Close and if the pilot is any indication, there is no one in the writer’s room talented enough to sharpen the pencils of Glenn Kessler, Todd A. Kessler, and Daniel Zelman – the creators of Damages.

Speaking of horrendous writing, the pilot gives us Mitch juggling three cases: a medical malpractice suit against a company that built defective heart shunts, a legal aid case defending a woman accused of killing an elderly woman and a legal aid case defending a 14 year old kid accused of murdering a classmate in a schoolyard brawl. Mitch does almost no work on the first two cases other than mentioning them, so we spend most of the two hour pilot dealing with one case that either Harry Korn or Alicia Florrick would resolve within the hour – with plenty of time left over for sub-plots. By comparison, Mitch doesn’t even resolve the case of his 14 year old killer. He does manage to get the kid tried as a child rather than as an adult, but spends most of his time dealing with the father of the murder victim who tries to hire a hitman to kill the 14 year old and ends up hiring Ray in a sting organized by Mitch.

I understand the desire to put Mitch into no-win situations that are morally complex so that we can watch him wriggle out of them. The show certainly tries very, very, very hard to make the situation Mitch’s fault for having aggressively questioned the witness to the fight to raise doubts as to who brought the knife (implying that the victim brought it which enrages the victim’s parents), but this is a false moral equivalency. Mitch is doing his job, defending his (admittedly guilty) client with every tool in his arsenal. It is up to the prosecutor to balance that by objecting to his tactics and fighting back. More importantly, Mitch’s goal isn’t to get a murderer off, it is to see the 14 year old tried as a child so that the legal system might actually help his client. No matter how rough Mitch got, there is no way that that is morally equivalent to hiring someone to kill a 14 year old.

Which doesn’t even hold a candle to how stupid Mitch’s solution is, which basically involves the father signing a confession of his crime and the prosecutor promising not to prosecute the case unless the father gets into further trouble. Which sounds more like a way of disciplining a child, “Don’t do it again or else!” than it does a legal procedure. In fact, there is even a legal way of accomplishing the same goal, without stuffing a confession in the bottom of a drawer. The prosecutor and defence attorney agree to a plea bargain of a suspended sentence. If the offender commits no other crimes for the duration of their suspended sentence, the judge dismisses the sentence.

At its heart, The Firm wants to balance a weekly legal procedural within the context of a larger conspiracy. That’s a lofty goal, but it is a stupid show bogged down by stupid writing for stupid characters practicing really stupid law while trapped in an especially stupid conspiracy.

Because of the way that The Firm was funded, we are stuck with a minimum of 22 episodes of this atrocity. We can only hope that the writing for this show improves in a hurry.

Michael Ryan

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