The new legal drama “For the People” has all the ingredients of a successful Shonda Rhimes series.
It’s a Shondaland production, it’s on ABC and it follows a crew of sexy young things on their journey into the adult world, where they make and break alliances, compete for favor and sleep with one another — all of it accompanied by a bankable soundtrack. The older folk disapprove until the diverse upstarts finally prove themselves under impossible circumstances.
But with “For the People,” which premieres Tuesday, the old winning formula is starting to lose its potency.
Set in the Southern District of New York Federal Court, the show focuses on ambitious lawyers newly sworn into their roles on different sides of the law. Three become federal public defenders, three become prosecutors, and the fireworks begin. But the display isn’t all that impressive, mostly because we’ve seen this drama before in Shondaland: set in a hospital (“Grey’s Anatomy”), Washington, D.C (“Scandal”), at a university (“How to Get Away With Murder”), etc.
It’s ironic, given that the story’s protagonist, ambitious new lawyer Sandra (Britt Robertson), bristles at the pragmatic and methodical ways of courthouse veterans like Tina, the unflappable clerk of the court played by Anna Deavere Smith.
The success of Rhimes’ shows runs parallel to the proliferation of smart, risky and unpredictable cable series — “Six Feet Under,” “Homeland,” “Game of Thrones,” “Breaking Bad,” “The Walking Dead.” But now that Netflix and Hulu and dozens more platforms are in the mix, cautious series like “For the People” have to add something new to the game or risk irrelevance
Judging from the first four episodes reviewed, there are few signs that the series has much of anything new to offer.
Days into the appointments of “For the People’s” fresh-faced crew, they are inexplicably given some of the most fraught and high profile cases in the nation — from terrorism to human trafficking to a racially charged murder at a neo-Nazi rally.
Sandra is tasked with defending a young American Muslim accused of trying to blow up the Statue of Liberty. “I’m going to save Mohamed Fayed,” says the idealistic defender, who is entirely unconvincing as a driven legal eagle but who always manages to have really good hair.
She argues that this man who’s never done anything wrong before was entrapped by undercover law enforcement agents. The defense argues that since terror is now a domestic threat, it’s law enforcement’s duty to preemptively ferret out the bad guys. She loses the case.
“This isn’t TV,” argues her superior, Jill (Hope Davis), after Sandra’s fumble. “You don’t get a Muslim American kid off for trying to blow up the Statue of Liberty. You’re going up against the government, the culture….”
And decades of TV series that have reinforced the idea that Muslims, even the nice American ones like Mohamed, are easily corruptible.
The effort this show makes to be inclusive with a multiracial cast and story lines is commendable, but it’s an effort undercut by its ties to old TV tropes.
An interesting twist would have been drawing parallels between Mohamed’s case and a neo-Nazi story line, given how many terror acts are perpetrated by far-right extremist groups. But this opportunity to take things a degree deeper, and other chances like it, are passed over in favor of standard conflict and romance among the main characters.
Each hour-long episode must give the cast — defense lawyers Sandra, Allison (Jasmin Savoy Brown) and Jay (Wesam Keesh) and prosecutors Kate (Susannah Flood), Seth (Ben Rappaport) and Leonard (Regé-Jean Page) — time to fall in and out of love and/or bed with one another, wrestle their own demons and do whatever it takes to win. After all, “there’s no place for losers” is one of the show’s mottoes.
If only the characters, or actors playing them, were more convincing. Instead, the newbie lawyers, who are supposed to usher viewers through the inner workings of the most prestigious court in the land, lack the charisma or gravitas to lead the way. Jay is the exception, perhaps because he exudes the feeling of being utterly out of his depth arguing cases in an institution that once housed Aaron Burr.
The cases they work are interesting in a ripped-out-of-the-headlines sort of way, but they’re not given enough attention to counter the predictable dramas enveloping them.
Veteran law officers here who serve as the voice of the establishment and the ways things have been done since the Clinton era add a slightly more interesting dynamic. The head of the public defenders office, Jill (Davis), and U.S. Attorneys Office chief Roger (Ben Shenkman) throw opportunity and roadblocks in the young recruits’ paths. They admonish and give pep talks. Baseball analogies are used more than once.
Perhaps the show will move into fresher territory or find its feet as it moves forward, but the initial formulaic approach doesn’t make for a winning case.
‘For the People’
When: 10 p.m. Tuesday
Rating: TV-PG-L (may be unsuitable for young children with an advisory for coarse language)