by Christine Alice Corcos
The new Warner Brothers "buddy"
drama Just Legal is the creation of Jerry Bruckheimer
(CSI, CSI: Miami, Without a Trace) and Jonathan
Shapiro (The Practice). It contains nothing new, but
in veteran hands, also including those of star Don Johnson (Miami
Vice) it clicks along. The plots are relatively interesting,
the bad guys get their comeuppance, Johnson leers at pretty girls
effectively, his co-star Jay Baruchel (Million Dollar Baby)
stumbles along charmingly. Just Legal renews one's faith
in the ability of the television industry to put together an
hour's worth (well, forty-two minutes' worth) of well-written,
acted and produced entertainment. Just Legal is not wildly
original, but it's not meant to be. For a Monday night, sandwiched
in between How I Met Your Mother on CBS which has as a
character a law student easily dragged away from his books by
his love starved friends (including the "I" of the
title) and Law & Order and Will & Grace
re-runs on various networks, this series represents the perfect
ham in an entertainment ham sandwich.
Just Legal's premise is that David Ross (Baruchel), a
nineteen year old fresh from passing the bar can't get hired
because he's too young. No high profile law firm wants him because
of his lack of real-world experience and maturity (1).
Even though he graduated first in his class, he takes a job
with a storefront (or beach front) law firm headed by jaded sole
practitioner Grant Cooper (Johnson). While Cooper claims to have
no dreams left, he hires Ross, and he lets Dulcinea ("Dee")
Cruz (Jamie Lee Kirchner) use his firm as a fake employer so
she can stay out on parole, because he botched her case. He snaps
up Ross with the promise that he'll get to try real cases, but
this promise is a lie-Cooper hasn't tried a real case himself
in years. He's afraid to litigate; he'd much rather settle any
case than face the opposition. The truth is, however, that Ross
doesn't want to try cases either, as he admits to the woman he
admires, Kate Manat (Susan Ward). She's taken the position that
he really wants, with a blue chip firm. But she's stuck taking
depositions and sitting fifth chair, while she'd much rather
be in the courtroom, doing battle. The grass is always greener.
In every episode, Ross spends much of the time doing research
into the case and trying to convince Cooper that the case, such
as it is, is winnable. Cooper, meanwhile, spends time telling
Ross that settling is better. Dee spends time telling both of
them that time is better spent on the beach enjoying the sun,
and when necessary, she separates the two right before they take
a poke at each other. Sometimes, she is the only individual in
this firm with any common sense, or any ability to mature. She's
also pretty and feisty, and likely to appeal to the male audience.
The second episode featured an African-American client in the
wrong place at the wrong time, accused of murdering a store clerk
during a robbery gone horribly amiss. Ross wants to defend him
to the limit, Cooper prefers to plead him out. Because this show
has a liberal bent, Ross wins, and the client is acquitted. The
writers introduce the viewers to some ugly little truths about
US law enforcement in the 21st century, among them that some
police officers still go after the nearest person of color when
a crime is called in, even if that person has no discernible
connection to the crime. Just Legal is thus a nice counterweight
to some of the other law dramas currently on the airwaves.
Not every episode centers on a murder case, which is refreshing.
Episode three is a malpractice case, which allows Cooper, a recovering
alcoholic, to sniff the defendant physician's breath while asking
about an appointment to see if perhaps the man might be habitually
drunk, indeed might have been drinking on the day of Cooper's
client's operation. Ethical? The defendant's attorney is nowhere
around at the time, but it allows Johnson a star turn and gives
the writers an opportunity to inject some comments about alcoholism
in the medical and legal communities. On occasion David also
uses his friendship with Kate (whom Grant snidely refers to as
"your girlfriend") to get information about witnesses
or case strategy as well. Whether or not Grant urges him to
do so is not always clear, but what he learns from week to week
is that the real world is not law school, and the choices one
makes are often quite difficult. Quoting an ABA model rule is
easy. Living it is hard.
What is disturbing about Just Legal is that the characters
seem to go back to square one in each episode and have the same
arguments each week. David lectures Grant on the nobility of
their client's cause as well as the presumption of innocence.
Grant lectures David on the futility of their client's cause
as well as the firm's continuing lack of cash. They go to court.
The client wins, usually because David does a lot of research,
stumbles his way through a witness examination, and Grant does
a (very) short opening and closing statement. ("We will
present our evidence. We will convince you that we are right.
Thank you.") David messes up and Grant feeds him some helpful
lines. Quite obviously, David is supposed to help Grant recapture
his youthful idealism, and just as obviously Grant is intended
to help David mature. The problem is that the gap in age and
experience is such that realistically, neither is likely to help
the other achieve these goals very quickly. In the background
is pretty Kate, sending David's hormones into overdrive. Grant
reminds David that marrying pretty girls is another way to go
broke really quickly.
However, the producers, writers, and actors on this series don't
intend it to be realistic. They intend it to be entertaining,
and it is. It is a huge amount of fun. The stories move along
with some style, if little originality. Johnson and Baruchel
have more charisma on screen than many other male pairs in similar
legal dramas. The supporting women characters actually have some
brains to complement their looks. Jay Baruchel looks lost and
cute, for the younger women in the audience. Susan Ward and Jamie
Lee Kirchner look beautiful for the benefit of all the men. And
for those of us females with a fondness for the older, but eternally
scruffy puppies out there, there's always Don Johnson.
requires that applicants be eighteen. In 1986 Steven Baccus
became a member of the Florida Bar at age 17 after receiving
a waiver. See Barbara Koh, L. A. Law has younger look as 22-year-old
starts working, L. A. Times, Dec. 31, 1989, at J1, col. 5.
Posted October 13, 2005