Katherine Heigl, with an assist from a stellar supporting cast, tries again with ‘Doubt’
No doubt about it, Katherine Heigl has had a rough go of it lately. Her departure from “Grey’s Anatomy” seven years ago earned Heigl a reputation for being “difficult” that, fair or not, she hasn’t been able to shake.
Her film career fizzled out and her would-be comeback vehicle, the “Homeland” wannabe “State of Affairs,” was canceled after just 13 episodes on NBC. Once the star of blockbuster romantic comedies like “Knocked Up,” Heigl has more recently appeared in ads for cold medication and kitty litter -- a fact that seems to delight her detractors in a way that seems at least a little sexist.
Whether “Doubt,” premiering Wednesday on CBS, will revive Heigl’s career is difficult to predict, but — sorry, haters — it is a worthy, highly watchable effort. While a bit tonally uneven in early episodes and not especially groundbreaking — it is, at its core, yet another legal procedural — “Doubt” is elevated by witty banter and a stellar supporting cast.
Heigl stars as Sadie Ellis, a skilled and ambitious attorney at a famed New York City firm run by Isaiah Roth (Elliott Gould), a famed liberal lawyer seemingly inspired by William Kunstler, who represented the Black Panthers and members of the Weather Underground. Roth’s idealistic mission, laid out in a speech recited from memory by his employees, is to stand by his clients so that they don’t have to stand alone.
Like seemingly every dramatic heroine on the small screen these days, Sadie is an emotionally closed-off workaholic prone to romantic complications at the office. In this case, she falls hard for her client, Billy Brennan (Steven Pasquale), the son of a prominent politician and a hunky pediatric surgeon (swoon) who may or may not have killed his high school girlfriend. (Nobody’s perfect, right?)
Of course, their budding romance presents an ethical minefield, and there is something a wee bit stereotypical about a female lawyer falling for a hot, but possibly homicidal, client (see also: HBO’s “The Night Of”). But hey, in 2017 does anyone really care about conflicts of interest anymore?
“Doubt” weaves this soapy ongoing narrative in with cases of the week, loosely ripped from the headlines: a college student who wears a sandwich board denouncing the man who raped her; a schizophrenic young man who pushed a woman to her death on the subway tracks.
Despite Heigl’s involvement, “Doubt” shouldn’t be mistaken for a star vehicle. It’s a well-cast ensemble piece that democratically spreads the drama among the supporting characters, including Dulé Hill as Albert, Sadie’s colleague and close friend, and Laverne Cox as a transgender Ivy League graduate named Cameron. Cox’s casting -- a first for a transgender actress in a series regular on broadcast television -- has gotten “Doubt” some early buzz. The series deals sensitively with Cameron’s gender identity while also treating her as a fully realized person, and marks a major step forward for CBS, a network that has been criticized for its lack of diversity.
Though underused in early episodes, Gould is as appealingly avuncular as ever, while certified national treasure Judith Light is ferociously good in a few scenes as Sadie’s mother, a former radical activist imprisoned for killing a state trooper. (And yes, Sadie has a few mommy issues.)
Created by Tony Phelan and Joan Rater, former executive producers on “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Madam Secretary,” “Doubt” bears traces of both shows. But it seems more obviously influenced by “The Good Wife,” and not just because it shares with it numerous cast members, starting with Pasquale and Dreama Walker as a naive second-year associate.
Heigl, who won an Emmy for her performance on ‘Grey’s Anatomy,’ is particularly well-suited to this mix of melodrama and screwball comedy.
Like “The Good Wife,” which ended its acclaimed run on CBS last year, “Doubt” attempts to blend high courtroom drama with moments of lighthearted comedy and sophisticated, rat-a-tat banter. It’s a tricky tone to get just right, and there are some awkward attempts at irreverent humor early on, including a clunker of a joke about lupus. But there are also some genuinely funny one-liners. (After pulling an all-nighter at the office, Walker’s character complains of smelling like “Scotch and MSG.”) Heigl, who won an Emmy for her performance on “Grey’s Anatomy,” is particularly well-suited to this mix of melodrama and screwball comedy.
“Doubt” also delves into the moral ambiguity of the legal profession, particularly the ethical dilemmas faced by defense attorneys. In one episode, Albert struggles with whether to reveal information shared with him by a client convicted of killing a teenager, and finds his humanity at odds with his professional obligations. There are also knowing lines (“This isn’t TV, the DNA’s not coming back overnight”) that suggest the show is at least attempting to subvert the genre’s most glaring clichés.
If anything, though, “Doubt” could do more to embrace this moral and narrative ambiguity, which was a hallmark of “The Good Wife.”
Are Isaiah, Sadie et al idealistic crusaders, craven opportunists, or both? And how are they paying for their swank offices and designer wardrobes? Hopefully as the series progresses it will explore these fertile subjects with more depth. Similarly, the did-he-or-didn’t-he cloud of suspicion surrounding Billy would be more convincing if the show really tapped into Pasquale’s proven ability to be both ridiculously handsome and deeply menacing (exhibit A: his turn as Mark Fuhrman in “The People v. O.J. Simpson.”)
This “Doubt” ought to sow a little more doubt.
When: 10 p.m. Wednesday
Rating: TV-14-L (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with an advisory for coarse language)
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