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Right, Alex. You are supposed to be representing your client's interests, not your own hormones

Feature article

A Blonde Leading the Blondes: CBS' Courting Alex

by Christine Alice Corcos

After watching Close to Home, I didn't have much hope for CBS' other attorney show, Courting Alex, which debuted in January as a possible replacement for Out of Practice, a medicomedy starring Stockard Channing and Henry Winkler, two gifted actors who do not, in my humble opinion, get nearly enough tv exposure. And they certainly don't get it in this tired vehicle, but it's getting better, so I'm happy to hear that it is coming back on Wednesday nights.

First, in the interests of full disclosure, I must admit that actress Jenna Elfman's charm eludes me. I watched Dharma & Greg in reruns and what I liked best about the show was not Elfman's wacky Dharma or Thomas Gibson's uptight attorney Greg, but the supporting cast, the talented Susan Sullivan and Mitchell Ryan as her upscale in-laws, and Alan Rachins, an alumnus of L. A. Law, and Mimi Kennedy as her holdover hippie parents. These old hands did so much with so little. Otherwise the show began with a slight premise ("opposites attract" couple marries on a whim and spends time discovering each other in lieu of filing for divorce) and had nowhere to go.

Courting Alex is more of the same. This time out, Elfman plays the "Greg" character. She is the straight-laced attorney, addicted to work, and unable to commit to a personal life, whom her father, founding partner Bill Rose (played by the great Dabney Coleman, doing a riff on his "Nelson Fox" character in You've Got Mail (1998)) urges to find some fun, and he hopes, a steady boyfriend. "You think too much. It makes you a great lawyer, but it's the reason you're missing out on all this good stuff, like fun, love, romance."

Shall we examine the "great lawyer" part of the equation? When we first meet Alex, she's headed for a first date with an ostensibly nice guy. They end up at a pleasant restaurant, to which she brings a cell phone, and she proceeds to take a business call while apologizing insincerely to her date. He finally calls her himself, then bails. We are meant to think her behavior shows how career-minded she is and how it demonstrates how desperately she needs a man to show her how to have a good time. Frankly all it shows me is that she is rude. I wouldn't continue to see a man who did this to me on a first date, and if I did this to someone, I'd certainly expect him to walk out. Is she truly a "great lawyer"? Well, she works at her father's law firm, and apparently has never worked anywhere else. And do career women really need men to show them how to "have a good time"? Is male companionship, charming as it is, quite so necessary to the enjoyment of civilization?

The premise for the first episode, and as it turns out apparently the next few outings, is that one of the firm's big clients wants to develop the land across the street from the law firm's building. The sticking point is the existence of a tavern right in the middle of the block. The pub's owner won't sell. Alex has to convince the owner to sell. Owner has turned over control to his grandson, who turns out to be a cutie named Scott (Josh Randall of Scrubs). Alex falls hard for Scott but does not of course want him to know the extent to which her hormones have engaged. Flirting and sexual banter of the most idiotic ensue. Scott tells her she's much too controlled. She insists she isn't. Suddenly she kisses him, surprising both of them. Apart from the inappropriateness of the behavior, this act seems so out of character for Alex that we don't understand it. How are we to absorb a woman who is both controlling and controlled, yet willing to chase after a man she has just met, all in a single day? Are we to believe that she reached the tipping point? Why? What is it about this particular day that has pushed her over the edge? Nothing in the script explains why THIS day is THE day for Alex and THIS man is THE man. Frankly, nothing about Scott tells us that either. As a character, he is dull and unimpressive, much more dull and unimpressive than both the fellow Alex kept ignoring at the restaurant, and Stephen, the lawyer at her firm her father keeps pushing at her. From what we have seen of them, these men are actually respectful and kind. Does she avoid nice guys? Does she want a man who insults her? She would probably call him "challenging." I call him vain, patronizing…if he's what she wants, men like him are a dime a dozen. Why has she waited so long and looked so hard?

Stephen, by the way, is another unfortunate fellow Alex uses as a toy. Scott pursues Alex to her office and to put him off, she "accepts" Stephen's "offer" of dinner. A startled Stephen takes her out and tries his best to keep her amused. He ends the evening with every man's nightmare-hoping against hope that that awkward goodnight kiss will persuade this woman he admires to go out with him again even though he knows in his heart he hasn't got a chance. And once again, she does what some pretty women do, and really shouldn't-she manipulates this pleasant but slightly boring guy in order to fend off the advances of another man she secretly finds attractive. She hasn't even given the poor schlub an opportunity to charm her. At least she didn't take along her cell phone. Alex is, on the whole, really not a very kind or particularly interesting woman. Stephen is too good for her.

Meanwhile, the problem of the client who wants to buy out the tavern has not gone away, and Dad still wants Alex to negotiate a deal, which means more conflict. Scott, having informed her that he will not sell, thinks the problem is resolved, and calls her for a date. She dithers, and finally accepts after telling him that seeing him again would not be a good idea. In the middle of the work day, off they go on his motorcycle.

I question several premises about any long term relationship between these two (and any long-term future for this series). First, if Alex is the high-powered career woman and the fascinating creature that the writers want us to believe, I cannot accept that she would find this phenomenally self-absorbed nonentity attractive for more than a few minutes. If she is not, then they deserve each other. Second, if he is as interesting and mercurial as the writers want us to think, and as tied to family as he says (and only someone who is would come back from an exciting career as a Montana smoke jumper to take over a family tavern) then he is not going to find a permanent relationship with a high powered attorney very satisfying. Even if he finds her physically attractive, they still need to share some values in order to make such a commitment work. So far, they don't seem to, so someone is going to have to change some opinions and beliefs. Who will that be? Scott, who as we have discovered is a former investment broker/smoke jumper/tavern owner who doesn't want to sell that family business? Or Alex, the high powered expensively shod attorney who hates to lose, doesn't like to cook and who loves her chic apartment and her nutty friends? I haven't discussed them but in sitcoms like this one they are obligatory and omnipresent.

I have trouble accepting a real love affair between these two. In their initial meeting, Scott knows (or suspects) that Alex is judging him, just as he is judging her, and he clearly resents it. He obviously believes that he has already figured out how to balance career and family, even though he is not married. If he wants to chuck his life as a high income investment type for something more adventurous and macho, then why not? If he then decides that it's time to return to the city to take up his place in the family business because family is more important, then he is the only judge of what's best. But he also apparently believes that he is entitled to say whatever he pleases about a woman he has just met, and an annoyed yet apparently fascinated Alex quite readily points this out to him. She then reverts to a typical female stereotype, having apparently forgotten everything she ever learned about assertiveness from her legal training. She lets him take the lead in their conversation and in their courtship, even though their communication should be entirely professional and they should have no courtship. This kind of writing dredges up every cliché in the romance lit handbook. A few times she points out that "this is supposed to be a negotiation. We are supposed to be negotiating." Right, Alex. You are supposed to be representing your client's interests, not your own hormones. Is she allowing him to lead her around by the nose for strategic reasons? I thought for a few minutes that her tactics were aimed at getting somewhere for negotiating reasons, but increasingly, the script led in the direction of romance. She loses her focus as an attorney and becomes more and more a love starved thirty-something with a ticking biological clock. Ugly sitcom reality sets in. Finally she rides off with him in the middle of a workday, but not for business reasons. Yet her client's interests are directly adverse to his, since he has said he has no intention of selling and she has no reason to disbelieve him. And Alex is a good lawyer? Neither she nor her firm should be involved with this fellow. Does this show have a legal consultant? If so, do the writers listen to him or her?

Except for the first episode, which jump starts the Alex-Scott romance, the number of legal situations in this show are so few that I am increasingly certain that this show is not about a lawyer at all. Courting Alex is interested in sending yet another message to professional career women and their desires to "have it all." In her first conversation with Scott, Alex discovers that he used to be a successful stockbrocker and that he quit to become a firejumper, then returned to New York to take on the family business (the tavern) at the request of his grandfather. Here is a very clear message to the ambitious Alex. Scott is a man to whom career and social position mean very little-at least, that is what he wants her to think. Family and time together should be much more important. These are the values that he signals to her are much more significant-a nice little romantic fiction. He moves quickly to take over what free time she has-in a recent episode her best male friend, Julian, complains she never has time for him anymore. Scott moves rapidly to "fix" that relationship by indicating to Julian that he is not jealous of the man's bond with Alex just as he "fixes" the rest of her life. Scott represents the "right man" for the professional career woman. He is the man who is accepting of her, because he no longer has to compete with her. He has already had a comparable career, and has given it up willingly, so he does not have to demonstrate that he is better than she is. Scott is also a chef-Alex is a bad cook. He is a success in the domestic realm as well.

Scott's tavern can apparently run itself-Scott is always available to whisk Alex away on a date, regardless of the fact that Alex has appointments with clients, as she is continually pointing out to him. In a recent episode, he interrupts her busy day to take her off "for two hours" to relax and to teach her to be spontaneous. She objects but he prevails. The "two hours" turn into an all day plane trip; she gets arrested because she interferes with airport security in order to check in at work, although he warns her against it. Again, the show portrays him as right: she should have relaxed and heeded his direction. When she discovers that her secretary and other attorneys have taken care of her clients without her she is mortified.

The show plays Alex's insecurities about her career for laughs (even though, remember, she is supposed to be a "great lawyer"), but such insecurities are not necessarily funny, and when Alex objects to Scott's interruptions, she is right to be concerned at the very least, and he is wrong. If the situation were reversed, if a woman were interrupting a man at the office, and he allowed such interruptions, we would see him as weak and ineffectual. We would not respect a male character who allowed a woman to make such a fool of him. He would not be amusing, he would be ridiculous. We would not believe that the characters around him would not notice. By contrast, Alex doesn't risk losing professional standing, precisely because her role as an attorney is so obviously not central to the series. We don't take her seriously as an attorney, because no one on the series does. The characters call her an attorney, but we never see her functioning as an attorney-Scott is always interrupting her. Her father is always telling her to take time off. Whether she is at the office or away with Scott doesn't really matter. She's simply playing at being a lawyer.

I object to this series for its trite writing and situations involving a professional woman, particularly an attorney. Could we substitute any other profession for that of lawyer and get as many "laughs"? Physician? Engineer? University professor? Airline pilot? It's not cute, it's frustrating, that in the early 21st century we still have presented to us a sitcom in which a professional woman has reached the pinnacle of her career at the age of 30 or so, and is now placing her search for a man center stage, apparently because the creators, as well as Elfman herself, cannot conceive of anything else as more interesting to explore in this character's life. Does Alex really have nothing left to aspire to than finding a husband and having children? How convenient that in the first episode we discover that she has already taken care of her career-thus it's time to seek a relationship and produce children, to fulfill her womanly destiny. I'm filing a 12(b)(6) motion on Courting Alex: failure to state a storyline in which any kind of amusement, originality, or insight can be found, and I'm reaching for the bicarbonate, at least until I can watch Out of Practice once again. That show has a real ensemble cast, something to say about careers as well as relationships-and no lawyers.

Posted March 30, 2006

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