Wednesday, February 15, 2017

REVIEW: 'Doubt' - Sadie Struggles to Represent Billy in Court and Not Fall for Him in 'Pilot'

CBS' Doubt - Episode 1.01 "Pilot"

Sadie Ellis, a successful defense lawyer, starts to fall for her charismatic client, Billy Brennan, who may or may not be guilty of a brutal crime.

CBS' newest drama Doubt is essentially a cross between Grey's Anatomy and Suits. Yes, it still has the feeling of a CBS procedural as well. But those two series seem to have their influences on the narrative structure too. That's understandable because series creators Joan Rater and Tony Phelan worked on Grey's Anatomy for several seasons. Plus, I enjoy both of those shows - even in their advanced age. So, it would seem like Doubt would be something I'd like. This premiere does a solid job setting up this world and the characters. It is very much a premise pilot that sets up the ongoing story while also establishing a case-of-the-week subplot as well. It's a light and breezy soap. That's a perfectly fine tone to set. When the show doesn't take itself too seriously and forces certain character beats to happen, it's fun to watch as well. But again, it's clear the ongoing plot is going to be an important thread this season. It's a scandalous story of a defense lawyer falling for her client who may or may not be guilty of a heinous crime. This show isn't setting up to re-inventing the genre. Plus, Katherine Heigl and Steven Pasquale have perfectly fine chemistry. That was just the element of this premiere that felt way too forced.

And yet, this premiere has actually made me want to watch a second episode. I can't say that for any other CBS drama this season. So, that's a win. Plus, this premiere establishes a worldview that is different than any other new show CBS has tried this season. It's not super grim and serious (like Training Day). Nor does it think it's the smartest show ever when it's actually a hilarious and contrived mess (like Bull, Pure Genius and MacGyver). It's a premiere that knows exactly what kind of show it wants to be. It doesn't aspire to be a high prestige show about the inner workings of a legal defense firm. It just wants to be a frothy and good time where the characters simply work on new cases each week while also struggling with their personal lives. When this premiere has a funny moment, it's because it was actually written as a joke. There is some unintentional humor as well. But mostly, the show is self aware of how it is coming across. That's an invaluable quality that could be spread around the CBS shows more.

Of course, it's understandable that watching a show with Katherine Heigl in the lead role comes with a lot of baggage. She's worked with Rater and Phelan before on Grey's Anatomy. So, they know the type of material that she is convincingly able to pull off. More importantly, I'm more of a fan of hers than the genuine consensus probably is. It's perfectly fine for this show to be a new starring vehicle for her. However, this is the latest attempt of hers at a comeback. She's been trying to mount one for a couple of years now and hasn't made much luck in either television or film. This show could change that. Sadie Ellis is established as this workaholic woman who enjoys the danger and darkness of her work. That comes from a tragic childhood where her mother was sent to prison when she was 2 years old. She has made something of her life because she worked hard. She's respected in this profession and is one of the top lawyers at her firm. There are moments that show off her legal prowess as well. And yet, most of her story consists of her relationship with Billy. It's clear from their first interactions that they are close. It's not at all surprising when the twist comes with him trying to act on their chemistry. It should just be interesting to see what balance the show strikes moving forward between legal and personal stories. Heigl largely works in both contexts throughout this premiere. But it would be nice to see her working a case and being "the great Sadie Ellis" while also having absolutely nothing to do with Billy. That will be the indication of whether or not this show can last.

That's a concern for the future. Right now, the show is just setting up the stakes of this story while also making sure it has enough complications to last a full season. It's clear the show is playing the long game with this story. Of course, one should expect for all of it to be wrapped up by the end of the season. It would be crazy for the show to keep it a mystery of whether or not Billy killed his high school girlfriend for longer than that. Even right now, it's not all that clear if Pasquale can sell that mystery. He comes off as both endearing and frustrating in his claims of innocence. Of course, the premiere wants the audience to be sympathetic to him. It wants us to be invested in his relationship with Sadie. That way when the truth is finally revealed it feels emotionally earned no matter what ultimately happens. But right now, it's more interesting to see the twists and turns of this case. Sadie is slowly realizing that she cannot act as good counsel because her feelings are developing for Billy. She fights to discredit the testimony of the new witness who has come forward. She fights to get the newly discovered murder weapon thrown out. And yet, Billy makes her job more difficult and she just goes along with it. He gives blood to discredit himself as a suspect. That's easily going to be a bad idea. That rational thought flew out of Sadie's head just because she's interested in him. That could be groan-inducing. But it should be interesting to see what she does next because of it. That means Albert taking over the case. But it also means Sadie actually kissing Billy and then running to her mother telling her she needs her now more than ever.

Elsewhere, there is a nice little subplot setting up more of the supporting characters. It's a very simple story though. Because of how much time is given to it, it has to be simple and to-the-point. Cameron is another top lawyer at the firm arguing the case of a man who pushed a woman in front of a subway train. There's no denying that he did this crime. The true case comes from deciding if he should be sent to prison or a mental institution. It's showing how far Cameron is willing to go in order to win her case. She's out to prove something because she wasn't able to make her case the first time around. This time she gets her client to stop taking his meds. That makes him have a couple outbursts in court which helps the jury see him as a crazy person who needs medical help. So, it's a victory for her. Of course, he still did kill someone and will spend a lot of time in a psychiatric facility. The win is bittersweet. That largely just makes it a teaching moment for the new-ish associate, Tiffany. She's from Iowa and can't believe she's yelling at her boss a lot. Those are largely the only details about her. And yet, the show has smartly cast all of these roles with actors who are capable of digging deep and finding the nuances in their characters. So, that should make this season fun and interesting to watch as the audience gets a better understanding of them.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Pilot" was written by Joan Rater & Tony Phelan and directed by Adam Bernstein.
  • Nick spends the entire episode sitting in the reception of the law firm just trying to talk with Isaiah about a job. It's not until he brings in new information about Billy's case that Isaiah learns his story. This guy learned the law while in jail and needs support from a credible source to pass the bar.
  • Isaiah seems like he could be an over-the-top, hoot of a character. He calls people fascist. He spends more than a few nights in jail on contempt charges. He romanticizes the notion of what a defense lawyer does. That could become annoying after awhile. He does have a nice and tender moment with Sadie though.
  • Sadie's mom is played by Judith Light, who immediately brings gravitas and a connection to the part in her very brief appearance at the end of the episode. Her story of facing the parole board and potentially re-adjusting to life on the outside could be another fun recurring story this season.
  • Albert is an interesting character. He's very serious when it comes to his job. He sees things clearly with Billy's case when Sadie cannot. But life outside of the courtroom is very much defined by humor - with him abandoning his dog and his back-and-forth on whether to be engaged.
  • It's great that Cameron being a transgender woman is just secondary to her being a lawyer struggling to prove her case in court and to her boss. This is the first time a trans actor has played a trans character as a series regular on broadcast television. And right now, Laverne Cox is easily the standout in an impressive cast.