Shouldering their way into the loud and densely packed world of buddy dramedies, TNT's "Franklin & Bash" seems at first precisely what it is — a self-conscious newbie show that has to push past a frat pack of successes, including "White Collar" and "Hawaii Five-O," and separate itself from the failures — "The Defenders" and "The Good Guys" — just to get a place at the bar.
We meet Peter Bash (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) and Jared Franklin (Breckin Meyer) as they are exchanging one of those guy quizzes ("What do you think your odds are with Marisa Tomei?) that TV pilot writers of the post-"High Fidelity" generation invariably believe are a totally fun way of establishing both character and a certain kind of slacker-sassy male friendship. These two boy-men are also eating junk food on the Sunset Strip, waiting for a traffic accident to happen so they can leap into action. They're ambulance chasers, you see, complete with an office that looks like a dorm room, one (very pretty) assistant Carmen (Dana Davis), who's an ex-con, and another, Pindar (Kumail Najiani), who makes the phobic "Monk" appear casual and carefree.
Franklin & Bash: a law firm that not only has your back, but also evokes that special blend of morally courageous and professionally outrageous — a young woman strips down to her cherry red bra in the subsequent accident trial — that has captured the hearts of network executives lo these many years.
Also, in this case, the attentions of the large and respectable firm Infeld Daniels, headed by Malcolm McDowell. OK, he plays Stanton Infeld, but he's Malcolm McDowell, for goodness sake, which almost pushes the whole thing into a traffic accident itself.
Why, Malcolm?, you find yourself wondering in the first few minutes of the show, as the dialogue becomes even more regrettably boorish ("she'd get a rise out of a lumber room," is Franklin's response to an attractive female Infeld partner) and we meet Infeld's nephew, who is such an über-uptight foil that his name is Damien Karp (Reed Diamond), why has it come to this?
And then something miraculous happens. Everyone calms down, settles in, stops trying so hard to be cool (or flip, or stodgy, or enigmatic), and creators Kevin Falls ("Journeyman" "The West Wing") and Bill Chais ("Dirty Sexy Money," "Shark") get their show on. Which turns out to be a charming, enjoyably light and occasionally thoughtful legal procedural.
The default likability of Gosselaar ("Saved by the Bell," "NYPD Blue") and Meyer ("Road Trip") helps a lot, especially at first. But, they quickly prove they can banter with the best of them and even deliver something more. In an unexpectedly poignant scene, Bash is caught strumming his guitar and singing "I'm Not in Love" to the window of his new sky high office — before running out to stop Franklin from commandeering the conference room for Wii tennis.
The show will rise or fall on the smartness of the dialogue, the chemistry of the two main characters (Franklin has famous-lawyer-father-issues; Bash is still in love with his ex, also a lawyer) and the crazy way they win their cases. In the first episode, Pindar's agoraphobia is both the lynchpin and the obstacle; in the second, true beauty is redefined in a thoroughly (and literally) winning way.
So, it's not as intrigue-heavy as "White Collar," as satiric as "The Good Guys" or as beautifully located as "Hawaii Five-O"; "Franklin & Bash" is smart, it's fun and it's summer.
'Franklin & Bash'
When: 9 p.m. Wednesday
Rating: TV-14-DLS (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for suggestive dialogue, coarse language and sex)