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TELEVISION REVIEW

Series ‘The Firm’ shows potential

By Sarah Rodman
Globe Staff / January 6, 2012
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After a breathless chase through some historic sites in Washington, D.C., lawyer Mitch McDeere uses a pay phone and calls his wife. “Abby,’’ he says, “it’s happening again.’’

Exactly what “it’’ is, is very complicated. In fact, there is so much going on in Sunday night’s dizzying (and occasionally tedious) two-hour premiere of NBC’s new drama “The Firm’’ - flashbacks, double-crosses, multiple court cases - that some type of flowchart or primer would likely be helpful for viewers trying to sort it all out.

“The Firm’’ is rooted in the 1991 John Grisham bestseller (and 1993 Tom Cruise film) of the same name. Grisham himself serves as one of the series’ executive producers.

In the original story - parceled out here in expository “where were we?’’ flashbacks - bright young lawyer McDeere (Josh Lucas) became entangled with a mobbed-up law firm in Memphis. Using his Harvard-honed wits and impoverished-childhood street smarts, he devised a scheme to bust the corrupt attorneys, which also resulted in the downfall of a Mafia don.

The show adds a new twist: McDeere and his pregnant wife, Abby (Molly Parker), entered the Witness Protection Program, as did his P.I. brother Ray (Callum Keith Rennie) and Ray’s galpal/Mitch’s secretary Tammy (Juliette Lewis).

The action picks up McDeere’s thread 10 years later when the family emerges, against the advice of the feds, in the wake of deaths and imprisonments of those threatening them. McDeere sets up a storefront office in D.C. with the help of Ray and Tammy but after six months is struggling financially.

Adding to his and his family’s woes is McDeere’s admirable desire to take on complex, time-consuming, nonpaying court-appointed murder cases, and the fact that the Mafia isn’t through with them. The boss’s son has ascended to his father’s position and now has Mitch and his whole family - including now 10-year-old daughter Claire (Natasha Calis) - in his sights. Plus, Mitch is waiting on a settlement offer in a big case against the manufacturers of a defective stent.

Because of his dire financial circumstances, McDeere is seduced to associate his shoestring operation with a moneyed firm that will offer resources he desperately needs. He believes they want a piece of the potentially lucrative medical suit, but their real motive lies with one of the players involved in the chase sequence that opens the show.

Somewhere in this big pile of plot is a potentially enjoyable series, if the producers can figure out how to balance the week-to-week procedural elements of McDeere’s court cases with the overarching mystery of his new associates’ sinister secrets.

The cast is a major factor in drumming up interest in what happens next.

Lucas, who has appeared in a slew of films including “J. Edgar’’ and “Sweet Home Alabama’’ but has yet to have a true star-making performance, deftly handles what we’re told is McDeere’s noble Atticus Finch-style aspirations to justice and wily concessions to the moral grays of reality. Parker, so good on the underrated “Swingtown,’’ brings that same sense of soft-but-steely calm to her role as wife, protector, and challenger to her husband. Rennie, a “Battlestar Galactica’’ vet, offers grizzled charm and the hint of comic relief; and Lewis - all blowsy, gum-cracking, cigarette-craving raw nerves - is her usual jittery self.

With all of the setup out of the way, “The Firm’’ could be the start of a promising mid-season for NBC.

Sarah Rodman can be reached at srodman@globe.com.

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THE FIRM

Starring: Josh Lucas, Molly Parker, Callum Keith Rennie, and Juliette Lewis

On: NBC (Channel 7)

Time: Sunday, 9 p.m.