One test of our knowledge of contemporary culture: can we predict whether an innovation will flourish or fail?
For the record, then, I believe Harry’s Law, the show that debuted last night on NBC, will fail.
The debut suggests I may be wrong. Harry’s Law got at 7.5 rating / 12 share, putting it ahead of the latest hit show from CBS, Hawaii Five – O.
Harry’s Law has other advantages that should give me pause. It has a formidable talent in the person of Kathy Bates (pictured) and it was developed and written by David E. Kelley, a guy who knows a thing or two about making hit TV.
This show has a time-warp quality. Harry’s Law feels as if untouched by the cable effect. The rise of HBO and the participation of TNT and USA Networks has created new standards of granularity (most recently Nurse Jackie). TV will never work its way to perfect granularity and a one to one correspondence with the world "out there." But the ratio is changing. The cable effect has pushed all TV, even genre TV, to new veracity.
And by this standard, Harry’s Law feels completely "sound stage," a reality created by and for the cameras. There is veracity here, but it corresponds to the "veracity standard" as that stood in 1990. At it’s worst, this show feels a little Murder She Wrote.
To make matters worst, there is a "crusading do-gooder" thing here that is cringe-worthy. Great and noble white people coming to the aid of defenseless black people? How very 20th century Hollywood. It expresses the secret racism of some parties: that the downtrodden depend on them, and their secret vanity: that when people come to the aid of the downtrodden they make themselves glorious. It feels as if Kelley is skirting that horrible Hollywood construction, the one that says the point of social action is not "social action," but the celebration of the do-gooder. (Surely, this is why so little ever comes from the Hollywood fund raiser. By week’s end participants have a hard time remembering the point of the event because, well, the point was to revel in their own generosity, and, hankies out, that was performed brilliantly.)
There is a deeper problem. There are moments when this show has Kelley’s signature whimsy. Madcap stuff happens. Weird combinations occur. When Kelley introduced this to TV, chiefly, I believe, through Ally McBeal, it was fresh and interesting. Kelley is one of the originators of what Lisa Schwarzbaum calls "magical comedy."
To be sure, we still like to disparate things brought together, on the screen, on the plate, in the ad, in the fashion outfit, in the interior design. Reckless, unexpected combinations has become one of our cultural signatures. But we have moved away from whimsy to combinations that are more raw and to use the language of art criticism, "disturbational." By this new standard, Harry’s Law feels like culture lite.
Ok, that’s my prediction. I might be wrong. I hope I am. I take no pleasure in the internet sport of trashing strangers. I am not holier than David E. Kelley. He has shaped contemporary culture in ways that deserve my admiration.
My last prediction, that The Good Guys would fail, was confirmed. Privately, I told a colleague that Undercovers would fail. (She may or may not be prepared to back me up.) So I am batting 2 for 2. We shall see how I do with this one.
McCracken, Grant. 2010. The Good Guys. This Blog. here.
Schwarzbaum, Lisa. 1998. Pleasantville. Entertainment Weekly. October 30. here.
I think the first surreal/madcap sitcom was Taxi, a show I never watched very much but seems to have had vast cultural influence.
Fish in a barrel Grant. As I was reading your post I was trying to think of the NBC show from earlier this season with the attractive couple that were spies or something (thanks for reminding me that it was Undercovers.) Harry’s Law seems cut from the same cloth. You could watch one :30 promo and see everything that’s going to happen on this show. I get it, she’s irascible. But in what current cultural universe is Kathy Bates – a fantastic actress – going to carry a prime time network show?
LIke you I’m making some assumptions here as I didn’t even watch the show, but I get the feeling this was a show originally conceived for John Larroquette about 16 years ago that somebody found in the back of a file cabinet. Does NBC have a Chief Culture Officer? Does anybody there watch Modern Family or Glee or cable TV?