Picture the scene in Ocean’s Eleven where Brad Pitt’s Rusty leans confidently on the side of his car, dressed in an impeccable suit, eating junk food and looking great while doing it, because he’s confident that he will always look good no matter what garbage he puts into his body. This image is mirrored by Suits’ main character Harvey, a hotshot attorney whose favorite meals seems to come exclusively from NYC hotdog carts. Imagine the effortless cool, as Matt Zoller Seitz put it, achieved by Soderbergh in moments during the Ocean’s trilogy replicated time and again. That’s Suits.
For the uninitiated, Suits follows the escapades of Harvey Specter (Gabriel Macht), New York’s most famous young attorney, and his genius protégé Mike Ross (Patrick J. Adams), a brilliant kid who ended up at Harvey’s firm without first passing through law school, a crucial detail only he and Harvey know. This deception causes the two main characters much heartache, and it is often used as the source of drama. But ultimately it serves to draw in viewers, who will find many reasons to stay long after the initial hook becomes irrelevant. The back and forth banter, the relaxed and joyful performances, and the exhilarating direction are just a few of them.
A television show set around the NYC corporate law scene might not seem like the ideal place to look for good parts for women, but viewers desperate for strong female characters need look no further. One of Suits’ many strengths is its seemingly unending list of supporting talent, much of which is supplied by women. One such woman is Jessica Pearson (Gina Torres), the managing partner of Harvey and Mike’s firm. As written, Jessica is powerful, intimidating and well aware of her influence on others, so Torres underplays it, making Jessica a calm and calculating individual who talks evenly and quietly. She also has a way of rising slowly from her desk, infringing on her opponents’ territory with a terrifying grace and confidence that is a wonder to behold. On the other hand, Sarah Rafferty, who plays Harvey’s assistant Donna, goes big. She makes Donna a force to be reckoned with, someone who can go head to head with the toughest lawyers in NY. She often gets the sharpest one-liners out of the entire cast, and she is not afraid to confront anyone, least of all her bosses Jessica and Harvey, if she feels that they are being stupid. That boldness could easily be misinterpreted as mere arrogance or an arbitrary quirk employed to make the character unique. However, Rafferty makes sure to display her character’s innate generosity and big heart. Donna is the moral center of the show, the character that points out when people are out of line, but the one who also comforts others when they are at their lowest. On paper, these characters could come off as types (the cold-hearted female boss and the fiery assistant), but onscreen, they are brought to life by the very specific choices of the talented actresses playing them. At one point or another, both have had to deal personally with the fact that they are women, in one case a woman of color, in an alpha-male dominated world, thus providing a welcome change to the traditional law procedural formula surrounding them. One episode even deals directly with a lawsuit on discrimination with clear personal implications for the women of the show, letting viewers know that the issue is never far from the writers’ minds.
While Suits offers the occasional insightful, serious social commentary, it is primarily geared towards providing its viewer with the maximum amount of enjoyment, which can sometimes mean tabling issues like women in the workplace in exchange for lighter fare. The characters of Suits, for instance, are of the sort that could only ever exist onscreen, as they have ample amounts of knowledge about both pop culture — an item discussed frequently — and the law, making Suits compulsively watchable moment to moment, regardless of whether the characters are in a courtroom making an impassioned defense, or simply hanging out at the office exchanging quips. At the same time, Suits is also exemplary in long form storytelling, a strength the makers of the show discovered around the start of the second season, when they abandoned the less risky “case of the week” structure they had adopted at first. The third season, for example, revolves around a magnificently constructed chess game of moves and countermoves that follows the firm’s uneasy merger with a British firm full of conniving, nasty lawyers who provide Harvey and Mike their biggest challenge to date. Real lawyers wouldn’t act so rashly as the characters on Suits (or so one hopes), but it is incredibly exciting to watch Harvey bet the future of his firm just to get a measure of the man taking over his company.
On their own, these elements would constitute an above-average legal procedural at best, but what makes Suits fascinating is tracing the evolving relationships of the core cast, developments that become particularly affecting when binge-watching the series. These characters may have started out as recognizable types in an established genre — the two protagonists are the cold successful lawyer who secretly has a heart of gold and the arrogant young maverick he takes under his wing — but over time, they have grown out of their molds to become believable individuals. Take Louis Litt, arguably the show’s breakout character, who starts off as the intolerable office jerk, but makes attempts to grow by confiding in Mike and repeatedly standing up for Rachel, a paralegal whom he believes could be a better lawyer than most of the firm’s Harvard-educated associates. However, his evolution, like that of Harvey and Mike, feels authentic precisely because it is never complete, as his newfound warmth does not erase the more unsavory aspects of his personality. Louis is a jerk, and nobody can take that away from him. The nastier parts of his person even come back to haunt him briefly during the third season in the form of Harold Gunderson, a weakling associate on whom Louis unleashed his bottomless rage in the first season of the show.
In the end, though, as can be seen through the amicable resolution to Louis and Harold’s problems, these are ultimately good people with each other’s best interests at heart. To the outside world, they’re sharks, and it’s fun to watch them eat the competition, but as Jessica tells a worried Rachel, who’s about to join the firm as a lawyer, in the season three finale: “We’re going to be a family, and the way to get to know your family is by being with them when their loved ones are in trouble”. Strip away the expensive suits, the courtroom drama, the sharks, the cars, the expensive scotch, the skyscraper corner offices, and all the glam that is, admittedly, one of the show’s great assets, and one can see that, at its core, Suits is a show about a group of unambiguously good people looking out for each other in a cutthroat world. In the age of the antihero, we need more shows like it.