Kathy Bates holds court
The wonderful Kathy Bates, lately seen around NBC in a recurring role on “The Office,” settles into an office of her own Monday as the star of “Harry’s Law,” a legal dramedy from David E. Kelley. Once thought a man who could do no wrong -- before he ushered “Snoops,” “The Brotherhood of Poland, New Hampshire” and “The Wedding Bells” into the world -- Kelley returns here to his happy place, the familiar fruitful ground of “Ally McBeal” and “Boston Legal,” mixing whimsical characters and situations with topical judicial thought-experiments. My sense is that “Harry’s Law,” like its kin, has little to do with most of what goes on in the real courtrooms of the world -- cases are argued as matters of principle rather than as matters of fact. But “Law & Order” never seemed like a documentary to me, either.
Bates plays Harriet “Harry” Korn, a successful Cincinnati-based patent attorney -- at least she is for the first few minutes of the show -- who has grown bored with her job and, as we meet her, lazes moodily in her office, smoking pot, watching cartoons and eating junk food. As fast as you can say, “You’re fired,” she is, and wandering aimlessly down the street she’s suddenly knocked unconscious by a suicidal roof-jumper (Aml Ameen). Released from the hospital, she’s promptly hit by a car driven by a young-gun lawyer (Nate Corddry), who is also her biggest fan. Add chirpy assistant Jenna (Brittany Snow), who, with the jumper and the lawyer, follows Harry from the corporate world into a storefront law office in “the ghetto” -- a former high-end shoe store, if you care to believe that, with the stock remaining -- and here is a play fitted.
You have to be able to take even light entertainment a little seriously, and while Kelley’s shows have often taken a soft-focus view of reality, here the creator seems fatally remote from his subjects. It’s a telescopic view from up on the hill of the poor folk down below, and though Kelley sympathizes with and stands up -- on a soapbox -- for the underclass, he stacks the deck in a way that does them a disservice.
The supposedly bad neighborhood in which Harry sets up shop is clearly just a street on a studio lot, garnished with a dash of garbage, a sprinkling of bums and two tablespoons of improbably attractive streetwalkers. Tough customers turn to puppies in an instant, the kid who comes selling protection is actually a protector; and even when Harry’s clients are guilty, they’re not wrong. And for a show ostensibly about a curmudgeon, it is awfully sentimental; for all Harry’s grousing, it’s only the system she hates: “The dirty little secret,” she tells a jury, “is we’re not in the justice business.” But she is, really.
Bates is a 62-year-old woman of a certain size, and though the actress works plenty, this is such rare lead casting for television that a thank-you note is due David Kelley -- a proper one, on paper. Though the role was originally written as male, the gender switch is beneficial, and I mean no disrespect to Bates’ costars when I say that without her there would likely be no show worth watching, at least as presently configured.
For all its flaws, there’s something attractively amiable about “Harry’s Law.” A little more grit, a little less speechifying, and a better verdict might yet arrive.
When: 10 p.m. Monday
Rating: TV-14-L (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with an advisory for coarse language)