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TELEVISION REVIEW

A middling tale of a promising mediator in ‘Fairly Legal’

Sarah Shahi plays a former lawyer, and Michael Trucco plays her DA husband in the new USA series “Fairly Legal.’’ Sarah Shahi plays a former lawyer, and Michael Trucco plays her DA husband in the new USA series “Fairly Legal.’’ (James Dittiger/USA Network)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / January 20, 2011

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USA’s “Fairly Legal’’ is fairly good. OK, I hate myself for that. But the phrase “fairly good’’ just seems so right in this case, not only for this new USA series but for almost all the series on USA. It could be the network’s brand logo — USA: Fairly Good.

USA has come up with a string of dramedies, including “White Collar,’’ “Royal Pains,’’ and, now, “Fairly Legal,’’ that are not exactly smart or clever or extraordinary in any way — but they are fairly good, too. They all have the same happy location-shooting style, the same chipper banter, and the same kinds of breezy plots-of-the-week. More than most networks, USA seems to require a particular tone and a certain middle level of ambition in their projects. Against the blur of the countless TV channels out there, USA has managed to create a strongly distinctive identity.

“Fairly Legal,’’ tonight at 10 after the mid-season return of “Royal Pains,’’ is about a San Francisco mediator named Kate Reed who settles legal disputes outside of the courtroom. A former lawyer who turned to mediation after becoming disillusioned with the legal system, Kate helps people find middle ground so that neither party has to lose. She uses her sharp intuition regarding human nature to prod her clients into moving forward. Working at her late father’s prestigious law firm with her stepmother, Kate spends her time poking into her clients’ lives to “get them on the same page,’’ as her stepmother puts it.

Whatever. The reason we care about Kate at all is because she is played by Sarah Shahi, who has natural charm to burn as she runs chaotically around town, always a little late. Shahi was memorable on “The L Word’’ as Carmen the DJ, and she was the perfect partner for Damian Lewis on “Life’’ as she saw the brilliance to his crazy. On “Fairly Legal,’’ she brings her virtues — wry humor, determination, skepticism — into a leading role without turning the volume up too much. She’s not playing a showboating lawyer, after all; Kate is a behind-the-scenes peacemaker. Shahi even manages to keep the fact that Kate lives on a houseboat from seeming too precious or self-consciously quirky.

Naturally, there are relationship issues afoot for Kate. She’s good at figuring out how to make strangers work things out, but she and her DA husband Justin (Michael Trucco) haven’t quite been able to find peace. They are separated, but they still see each other and have warm conversational volleys. Likewise, Kate doesn’t like her stepmother, Lauren (Virginia Williams) — she has Lauren’s ring tone set to the music for the Wicked Witch of the West from “The Wizard of Oz.’’ But they work together, to keep the firm alive. And on this fairly good show, they work together fairly well.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit www.boston.com/ae/tv/blog.

FAIRLY LEGAL

Starring: Sarah Shahi, Michael Trucco, Virginia Williams

On: USA

Time: Tonight, 10-11