I liked the first season of Shondaland’s legal drama For the People quite a lot: fresh-faced AUSAs and public defenders battle with each other in and out of the courtroom, with snappy dialogue, smart plots, a ship or three, and enchanting performances by Hope Davis and Ben Shenkman as the grown-ups in charge of each office. This second season will, however, be the last: unfortunately, American audiences just weren’t buying what For the People was selling, and it’s hardly going to inspire save-the-show hashtags. Charles Michael Davis joins the cast this time round as an investigator, but I’m guessing and hoping that otherwise it’s business as usual (Wednesday 3 July, Sky Witness, 10pm).
A few weeks ago we reviewed the first episodes of Sky Witness’s slate of new American dramas: For the People, 9-1-1, and Instinct. I’ve stuck with all three, for (mostly) better and (occasionally) worse, so I’m going to report back on each of them as their respective seasons end.
First to finish is For the People, which as it happens is my favourite of the three shows by some distance. I called the season-opener the quickest 40-45 minutes of the week, and the other nine episodes have successfully repeated the formula: two or three interesting and/or entertaining Cases of the Week; Hope Davis (Jill, head of the public defenders’ office) and Ben Shenkman (Roger, assistant US attorney) as the grown-ups in the room; and their youthful staff members firing off smart triple-speed dialogue at each other. Particular credit has to be given here to Susannah Flood as novice prosecutor Kate Littlejohn; her line readings, laced with delectable and withering scorn, have been to die for throughout. In fairness, though, all of the six young leads – Flood, Regé-Jean Page as the appalling Leonard, Ben Rappaport as Seth, Britt Robertson as Sandra, Jasmin Savoy Brown as Allison, and Wesam Keesh as Jay – have been fresh and fun and very watchable. In turn, my worry after the first episode – that the characters wouldn’t be sufficiently distinguishable – has proved to be unfounded. I even started to care about them. Apart from Leonard.
This episode was typical, and typically good. In Case 1 Jay defends a parent accused of having MDMA in her car in order to sell it to kids at a tony private school. All is not as it seems and, unusually, Kate works with him to undermine her own case. In Case 2 Sandra acts for a Chinese-American scientist accused of espionage, something of a callback to the first episode in which she unsuccessfully defended a young man accused of terrorism. I was engaged by both. Meantime Leonard is told by his politician mother that the post of Texas Attorney-General is his if he wants it – pray for Texas – and Allison is courted by the wine-tasting dude from an earlier episode.
If there is a criticism to be made of For the People – and I’m really not sure that it’s a problem at all – it’s perhaps that the show is all surface and no feeling; it doesn’t always give the impression that the characters have uncharted depths. As it happens, though, in this final episode the emotional punches landed. Most importantly of all, at the start of the episode Jill and Roger slept together, and you guys I am SO HERE for that ship. On top of that Seth declared his love for Allison, who instead chose wine dude; Kate broke down after telling Leonard that she would miss him if he moved to Texas; and Sandra finally managed to get partial redemption for the case she lost in the first episode. Soundtracking the episode’s final scenes with Radiohead’s ‘True Love Waits’, a track which isn’t just good, isn’t just great, but has a genuine and statable claim to be The Best Record Ever Made, ensured that at least one viewer had something in his eye, and will happily return for season 2.
We begin with Sandra Bell – played by Britt Robertson, who was great in teen dramas The Secret Circle and Life Unexpected, and might just save this show from itself by sheer charm alone – turning up over an hour early to be sworn in as a new public defender at “the Mother Court” in New York. She’s keen, see! The other five newbies we’re supposed to follow turn up in dribs and drabs but, after a whole episode, I can only tell you the names of two more of them, so I don’t think the writers like the rest as much as they like Sandra Bell. (NB: She gets called “Sandra Bell” rather than “Sandra” an awful lot by folk who think they’re being cute, but might need to disabuse themselves of that notion.) Further evidence of this is that, as it happens, the other two whose names I know are Ally and Seth, aka Sandra Bell’s best friend/roommate and best friend/roommate’s boyfriend-but-spoiler-not-for-long, because Sandra Bell says both their names a lot.
Anyway, because this is a Shondaland show, “they’re young, they’re hungry, they’re smart” and they’re all beautifully dressed. They don’t speak in house-style monologue yet, for which I am profoundly grateful, but they’re very impassioned, which is fine for this type of glossy nonsense: it’s a network procedural, not an undercover investigation by channel 4 news. Under that same heading, see also the very simplistic, somewhat unfair attitude this first episode has to prosecutorial motives and ethics, and the fact that chief public defender Hope Davis likes to dish out life lessons – or maybe just to train Sandra Bell – by way of long, laboured baseball stories. I’ve had many bosses in my life, some good, some bad, but the day one of them starts trying to teach me the Tao of Charlie Nicholas is the day I will need to get a new job. Sandra Bell seems to like it though, so whatevs.
Something I can’t really handwave so easily, however, is that two of the new kids on the block – Sandra Bell, of course, and a really annoying dude who calls her “Sandra Bell” but also has definite signs of a Secret Pain so maybe he’s got potential – brassily volunteer themselves into dealing with the presumably high-profile and very important case of a young man essentially recruited by law enforcement to try to bomb the Statue of Liberty on their FIRST DAY. And then both of them are allowed to run the trial within what seems like their first week. With their bosses sitting right next to them. I mean, if their bosses have the time to sit there, why are they not actually running this incredibly high-stakes case themselves? Or at least handing it over to someone who hasn’t just walked in the door? Do they really….. You know what, never mind. It’s summer, nobody is pretending this show is anything more than shiny tat, and nobody needs me to fret about its verisimilitude. It might as well be set in space, it doesn’t matter.
Onto the things that maybe do. For the People has a reasonably diverse cast, the acting is all perfectly fine in that swishy, splashy network procedural way, and the Statue case is actually reasonably under-played – its message is clear and worthwhile, even if Hope’s character doesn’t trust us to get it ourselves, and succumbs to the temptation to spell it out all for us at the very end. In Robertson’s hands, Sandra Bell seems quite nice when she could very easily have been infuriating, and if I watch it again, she’ll probably be the reason – nobody else made enough of an impression for me to care about them either way, but in fairness it’s only the first episode. Maybe Annoying Ambitious Guy or Buttoned-up Prosecutor Girl in Boring Suits will come into their own in the second. Ending this one with the lyric “This is what legends are made of!” seems wildly over-optimistic, though. If you want to talk “legends”, For the People shows no immediate signs of getting close to any of them: it’s not as earnest or compelling as Law and Order, it’s not as quirky or charming as LA Law, and it’s not anywhere near as clever or funny as The Good Wife or The Good Fight. But it is watchable and mildly entertaining: I wouldn’t give it any awards, but I probably would give it another episode. I didn’t hate it.
Apparently Sky Living’s name has been causing Sky TV one or two problems. Its market research has revealed that some of those who are unfamiliar with Living expect it to broadcast lifestyle shows; whereas it is, in fact, probably the UK’s most reliable source of American procedural dramas. As of tomorrow, therefore, Sky Living will be rebranded as Sky Witness. Hee. Sky Witness! Do you see what they did there? (Actually, I’m not 100% sure myself that I see what they did there. so let’s move on.)
As part of the launch there will, in August, be three new American shows on Witness, and the first of these is For the People, a legal drama from Shonda Rhimes’s Shondaland stable. It stars – among others – Ben Shenkman, who latterly became one of the most interesting things in Royal Pains; Britt Robertson; Ben Rappaport, the “other Cary” in The Good Wife; the wonderful Hope Davis; and Anna Deavere Smith. Now, this doesn’t need to be great to push my buttons: give me some shipping, some Secret Pain, some ethical dilemmas, and some “Objection!” “Sustained!” “Counsel, approach!” dialogue and I’m likely to be on board.
The more interesting subplot, it seems to me, is whether Rhimes is still in possession of her mojo, particularly as she’s about to jump ship to Netflix for scarcely-conceivable amounts of cash money. Scandal remained relevant at least until it concluded, but it undoubtedly went downhill after its second season. How To Get Away With Murder and Gray’s Anatomy are hanging on in there, but her most recent new show, The Catch, crashed and burned after two seasons. I liked it quite a lot, but that opinion wasn’t shared by enough people to keep it going.
For the People has been renewed for a second season, and this first season is only ten episodes long. This seems to be a trend in American TV, and it’s one of which I wholly approve; with so much choice these days, it’s asking a lot of a viewer to commit to a 20-plus episode season of any new show. Anyway, I’m going to give this a go. CJ will be reviewing the first episode, and I’m sure we can rely on her to give a Shondaland show starring someone out of Royal Pains a fair review. *looks to camera* (Monday 6 August, 10pm, Sky Witness.)
And just a quick word about The Good Doctor: if you missed it first time round, Sky Witness is running season 1 from the start, commencing on Monday 6 August at 8pm. It’s a well-crafted medical drama, which I realise sounds as if I’m damning it with faint praise. But the acting is good, the plots quite often head off in unexpected directions, and it’s definitely worth a look.