A Shonda Rhimes’ Series That’s Actually Good?
For the People Review
By now anyone who has been following this column for a sustained length of time knows how much I loathe Shonda Rhimes. I even wrote up a column just two weeks where I cursed How To Get Away With Murder for the 4000th time. So I expect everyone who reads the following review to judge this carefully, maybe give it more consideration.
By now, everyone knows the Shondaland formula. It follows a group of attractive people, usually very long, who are interested in three things: sex, advancement of their careers, and then maybe their profession, whether it be medicine, law or politics. The majority of the leads are females and/or minorities, and if they have any character at all, it shoved aside for the sake of their careers.
That’s why For the People comes like a bucket of ice water to the system of someone used to this same formula. In the first three episodes, I’ve seen two sex scenes — which for Rhimes’ world is almost virginal. The majority of the characters are in law, (yes, like in Murder) , but they still seem to be young enough not to have the idealism stomped out of them, and actually seem to believe in justice for their clients. And god help us, there’s actually been character development in the episodes I’ve seen that doesn’t pertain to sex. (Well, there is a character who seems bent solely on advancement and sex, but oddly enough, he’s also the most loathed. Which is rare.)
For The People looks at a group of attorney’s for ‘The Mother Court’, a district court in New York. Three of the major attorneys have just been sworn in for the prosecutors, led primarily by Roger Gunn (Ben Shenkman). Three others work in the public defender’s office, led by Jill Carlan (Hope Davis, finally getting work on television worthy of her.) There are also some fairly strong authority figures around the courtroom -the main bailiff, Tina Krissman (Anna Deaveare Smith is in the house!) and Judge Byrne, who oversees many of the courts and acts as referee (Vondie Curtis-Hall, where have you been the last ten years). Strangely enough, these authority figures are fully dimensional, and actually seem to try and give as much of a damn, while still trying to work within the system. It comes as little surprise that Smith’s character is the most intriguing, as someone who tries to guide the PD’s in the direction of people who need help, while trying to remain working within the system.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the attorney who play the PD’s get some of the juicier storylines. There’s a Jewish attorney who basically worked at his parent’s dry cleaner to get through law school, who finds himself defending a neo-Nazi accused of trying to assassinate a state politician. He goes through all kinds of emotional tug-of-war just trying to release him, and doesn’t feel any better about what he’s done when he’s finished. There’s Allison Adams, a PD, who is willing to break the rules with her boyfriend to get a client off, but still feels pain when it comes time to dealing with software that might end up sending a child not unlike her to a higher sentence. And in the lead role is Britt Robertson as Sandra Bell, a foster child who still burns at the injustices of the system, and who has too much empathy with her clients.
But by far the breakout character in this series is Susannah Flood portrayal of prosecutor Kate Littlejohn. A humorless, fast-talking, rules-following attorney, she seems what Paris Gellar might have become after Gilmore Girls. (And frankly, I’d rather have seen Liza Weill playing her than stuck as Bonnie in Murder.) She deliberately makes herself hard to like, lie so many Shondaland characters. But unlike those characters, people respect her, and there happens to be a soul in that characters. In last night’s episode, she delivered a heartfelt monologue about her childhood desire for a trip to the Capitol and what thwarted it that was far more impassioned than I’ve heard in any series in awhile. And the way she worked on a project with Legos, and its final revelation actually revealed a depth that a lot of network characters don’t have.
For the People, perhaps not that surprisingly, is more of a Shondaland series in all but name. It bears the producers production sign, but there’s little else. It’s extremely well written and acted, and genuinely seems to give a damn about its characters. Perhaps that’s the main reason, it’s running a poor third Tuesdays at 10pm. I have a request. For the People’s ratings are about the same as How to Get Away With Murder, a Shondaland legal drama, which is anything but. ABC is going to have to make some tough choices about which series to kill. They’ll probably end up saving both, but if I get a vote, it’s for, well, you know.
My score: 4 stars.