First episode impressions: ‘For the People’ (TV review)

“For the People” (10 p.m. Eastern Tuesdays on ABC) is competent at what it does, but personally, I’m not wired to enjoy what it does: Through a variety of cases each week, this courtroom drama illustrates the frustrating flaws of the American justice system. We get just enough of a window into the process to feel the same Sisyphean hopelessness as the losing lawyers. The agents, attorneys, judges, jurors – and of course the faceless state — responsible for unjust verdicts aren’t held accountable; we just move on to the next week and the next batch of cases, hoping for a better outcome. It’s real, and it’s frustrating. How enjoyable it is depends entirely on what you’re into.

This specific courtroom drama, created by Paul William Davies (“Scandal”) and produced by Shonda Rhimes’ ShondaLand, falls more in step with the broad portrayal of “The Practice” than the nitty-gritty specifics of “Law & Order.” (I admit those references reveal how long I’ve gone without following this genre.) Set in New York City, and bookended by gorgeous shots that remind us of that, “For the People” follows a fresh-faced cadre of public defenders and state attorneys – good guys and bad guys, as it were, although there’s room for nuance.

After swearing fealty to the Constitution (right on) and the government (creepy), this batch of suits spreads out to become distinct characters. The freshest (even after a day of poring over briefs, cuz this is TV) but also most familiar face is Britt Robertson (“Life Unexpected,” “The Secret Circle”) as public defender Sandra. Her arc mirrors everyone else’s: the fear of one’s first day on a new job, the intimidating nature of a new boss (Hope Davis), and the feeling of being in over your head. Her case is emblematic of the irksome nature of the legal system: Her first client was heavily recruited by FBI agents to become a terrorist — entrapment in the moral but not legal sense. The young man is found guilty and hauled off. The jury, who of course never speaks a word outside of dramatically delivering the verdict, is not challenged to account for their decision.

To its credit, the briskly paced “For the People” is genuinely interested in how these cases effect the lawyers. The state’s Leonard (Rege-Jean Page) wins the terrorism case, but we can see he’s troubled by it – indeed, his workaholic colleague Kate (Susannah Flood) tells him he should be nervous about the possibility of winning. Most illustrative of how this job can take over people’s lives – and the very fiber of their being – are boyfriend-and-girlfriend Seth (Ben Rappaport) and Allison (Jasmin Savoy Brown). Allison – who is Sandra’s best bud, by the way — gets justice for her client, an innocent (in the moral sense) woman whom the state wants to use as an example about insider trading. But she achieves that by betraying Seth’s confidence.

Public defender Jill (Davis) and state boss Roger (Ben Shenkman) know they are not enemies, they are adversaries in an adversarial system designed to achieve justice. They hang out at Yankees games together. That’s a nice touch, and probably the tip of the iceberg of the web of romances and friendships the series will engage in. But “For the Justice” isn’t about how things should be, it’s about how things are. In every case in the first episode, the state lawyers are so urged to win by Roger that they don’t stop to think about achieving the just outcome.

Jill has grown on Sandra (and me) by the end of her first trial (and the first episode), and – using a Willie Mays metaphor – she encourages her charge to come back tomorrow (or next Tuesday, as it were) and try again. And you might want to, also; it’s just that one episode is enough for me.

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