The lawyers of “Bluff City Law” want to change the world. Unfortunately, their show writers are not as keen on making this courtroom drama pilot any different from its peers.
NBC’s new fall procedural “Bluff City Law” follows former corporate shark Sydney Strait (Caitlin McGee, “Grey’s Anatomy”) as she moves back to her hometown of Memphis following the untimely death of her mother. With much reluctance, she accepts her father’s invitation to rejoin his law firm — a cozy office full of smiling and polite Southern stock characters — and handle civil cases instead of continuing to work on “the dark side” of large corporations.
Sydney’s father, Elijah Strait (Jimmy Smits, “NYPD Blue”), in between moments of mourning his wife and accepting praise for being a legendary civil-suit lawyer, seeks to win back his daughter’s affections after a lifetime of cheating on her mother. Upon Sydney’s return to her father’s firm, she happily greets her supporting characters and learns of her next case: A high school custodian, Edgar Soriano, and his family claim his terminal cancer is the direct result of exposure to popular fertilizer produced by a conveniently evil conglomerate, Americorp.
Through some calculated grandstanding and some dramatic violations of courtroom and social etiquette, the Straits win the case, secure over $45 million in damages for the Soriano family and establish precedence for a pending class action suit against Americorp. Sydney and her father start to get along better, one of the firm’s partners has begun an appeal for a wrongfully convicted prisoner and some romantic tension is brewing between Sydney and her ex-husband, the chief of detectives.
On paper, “Bluff City Law” has all the components of a good courtroom drama. It has snappy dialogue, a fresh case every week, some moral introspection about good and evil in the American justice system. But in practice, the show falls flat. It’s major issue is its focus. The sympathetic clients exist only to be defended and pitied. The lawyers drive the emotion of the show and are the only ones shown suffering from corporate greed. Suffering by being in proximity to actual victims, of course.
The storylines of horrific injustice simply serve as a backdrop to play up the rather uninteresting personal issues of the Straits and their partners at the firm. The warped focus results in a shocking lack of heart or emotional stakes for the audience. Rather than demonstrating the hard work involved in these cases ripped from the headlines, characters just talk about their already sterling reputations and inexplicable talents ad nauseum. Any emotional conflict is expressed by how tragic it would be for the lawyers to fail by co-opting the actual hardship of their clients.
Yes, the system is broken. Yes, victims of the system deserve justice. But focusing on beautiful attorneys winning sanitized, simplistic cases gives the wrong people attention they don’t necessarily deserve. For every Erin Brockovich securing a guilty verdict and getting a movie made about her, there are hundreds of people and towns that continue to suffer without media coverage or a team of Sydney Straits to break the rules and save the day.
The lawyers of “Bluff City Law” are good people. Great people, if you ask them. In fact, every scene of the show’s pilot episode revolves around the moral superiority of its main characters and how wonderful they are for being humanitarian lawyers. Yet, despite their lofty rhetoric and good intentions, the show’s premiere relies on tired courtroom drama tropes and petty personal feuds while failing to come through on its promise to “change the world.”