Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Shallow End - ABC's New Hip Young Lawyer Show Reviewed

Santiago Ramos reviews ABC’s new lawyer show and doesn’t like it a bit:

The Shallow End

The Deep End
Thursdays on ABC

Review by Santiago Ramos

The unsteady stack of clich├ęs that is ABC’s new lawyer show The Deep End can only be described in comparison to the other shows it steals its ideas from. That’s just the problem. To paraphrase T.S. Eliot: good writers borrow, great writers steal. Bad writers imitate, for ratings.

Three episodes in, we can list the imitations. The Deep End tries to do for the hip young lawyer what Scrubs does for hip young physicians—but without the dreamlike humor, and without the satire. The show tries to reproduce the machine of a sophisticated, 21st century profession, like The West Wing or Mad Men. But even though it indulges in walk-and-talks (a camera/dialogue technique developed in The West Wing), it lacks the intelligence and patience required to construct a believable law firm. Its characters are too superficial even for soap opera-melodrama—but lacking expertise in the genre, I’ll cede this argument to my readers.

There is one comparison, however, that is particularly illuminating: The Deep End is Entourage with a slight case of guilty conscience. Entourage (for those without HBO) is a show about four friends, one of which is a movie star, who “make it big” in Hollywood. “Making it big” entails: 1.) Fame; 2.) Money; 3.) Meaningless sex with many good-looking women. The show deals almost exclusively with acquiring, losing, and re-acquiring these three idols, and never does a character rebel against his own impoverished ambition, against his blindness before, say, love or art. (To be fair, there once was a character who loved art more than money—the indie filmmaker Billy Walsh—but he was written off the show after a few seasons. He suffered a nervous breakdown.)

But not everyone can be a movie star. Some are forced to pursue 1, 2, and 3 through the regular professions. The Deep End centers around the lives of five ambitious first-year associates at the law firm of Sterling, Huddle, Oppenheim, & Craft who are doing just that: Addy Fisher (Tina Marjorino), from Case Western law school, a wholesome, quirky middle-American; Beth Branford (Leah Pipes) a Stanford grad from a family which endowed a chair at the same university; Liam Priory (Ben Lawson), our representative from Down Under; Dylan Hewitt (Matt Long), the most altruistic of the bunch, clean-cut, polite, and hardworking; and Malcolm Bennet (Mehcad Brooks), perhaps the only interesting character on the show due to the fact that, because he must take care of his orphaned 13-year-old brother, he has less time to hang out with this fellow first-years in the sundry LA hotspots that they patronize every episode—the same poolside parties and swanky clubs that we can see on Entourage. Apart from Malcolm, however, all of these characters, despite their different backgrounds, are fundamentally the same.

They also all work all the time and still find the leisure for the well-earned cocktail at the end of the day. In a sense, they are expected to be there, and they all expect what they are expected to expect—they are never unique, they never desire something unique, something beyond the limited horizon of their class. Their bosses attend even swankier establishments. But there is another aspect of their superiors that is more ambiguous: At the beginning of the pilot episode, a power struggle develops between the bosses. Sterling, who is the head partner in the firm, has returned after a leave of absence. Huddle, who is the calculating, ruthless, and conscienceless lesser partner, is reluctant to return the reigns of the firm to the more moral and pro-bono-loving Sterling. This struggle between conscience and naked ambition is supposed to be the backdrop against which our five young lawyers are developing their character.

But not really. Really, the essence of the show consists in the celebration of glamour and ambition, attenuated by flashes of charitable spirit. But this charitable spirit manifests itself in bromides and saccharine talk such as: “That’s what I’d like to change about the system: it’s all about rules and not about justice.” The “bad guys” that first-years fight against are often government agencies, such as the DEA or “Immigration,” also known as Homeland Security—in other words, the bad guys are the parents, the authority figures.

This is because the first-years are really children—with the exception of the close-to-interesting Malcolm, who is forced into a sort of fatherhood. But the rest of the cohort merely dreams the dream that we sometimes tell ourselves, that we can float into the empyrean realm of success by being a little nice along the way, and without having to suffer through doubt, sacrifice and—gasp!—poverty. This is a show about the struggles of a people who don’t have to struggle.

But there is no need to stay on the shallow end of the dial. Not in our privileged time of great television drama—not in the age of The Wire or Mad Men.