Paul William Davies’ new legal drama “For The People” may feature elements of traditional “case of week” procedurals, including taking on topical issues, but the cast says the heart of the show comes from the relationships between the up-and-coming public defenders and assistant US attorneys.
“It’s as much a coming-of-age story for these people — it just happens they’re coming of age professionally because they have this huge sense of mission to do this professionally,” star Ben Shenkman (who plays Roger Gunn, chief of the criminal division in the U.S. Attorney’s office) tells Variety. “It’s an emotional color — it’s an emotional pull — to be a prosecutor who wants to put away the bad guys [as well as] to be a public defender and want to defend the underdog and rebel against the abuses of the system.”
Star Susannah Flood, who plays prosecutor Kate Littlejohn, adds that the characters escape a lot in their lives through work. “In a certain way a lot of these characters are given permission to be fully themselves at work — it’s an arena in which you can be fully yourself,” she says.
Britt Robertson portrays Sandra, one such young defense attorney who is so eager to build her career she “carries her work with her everywhere she goes,” she says.
This means Sandra “has a hard time knowing what her personal life is” and although she has a deep friendship with her roommate Allison (Jasmin Savoy Brown), she is focused on advancing professionally, rather than pursuing romantic relationships.
“Honestly it was the biggest draw to the Sandra character for me because I’ve been acting for a long time, and literally ever since I started — and I was 12 when I started acting — I’ve always been in a relationship,” Robertson says. “Pretty much there was a romantic element to every female role, and it gets old after awhile to play the love interest. So for me, playing Sandra, it’s nice to not have to deal with that.”
Instead, the show will depict Sandra’s struggle with control as she is tasked to defend complicated cases, as well as the occasional client whose behavior Sandra believes begets a harsher punishment than that for which she actually fights.
Meanwhile, Allison is in a relationship with Seth (Ben Rappaport) but it’s one Brown calls “a little rocky.” “You know what comes to mind? A yo-yo. It’s back and forth, back and forth,” says Brown.
Characters like Jay (Wesam Keesh) and Seth are tasked with coming to their own in similar ways. Like Sandra, Jay is on the defense side of the law, and Keesh says his character starts out very trusting but quickly learns things are not going to be easy.
“He’s heartfelt. He believes in the good in people,” Keesh says. “[But] he has to deal with people who are some of the best people just caught in a bad place and some of the worst people — and then some really crazy people who just don’t know what reality is.”
The second episode of the series will go home with Jay to explore how his core values align with his family but “get challenged with one of his cases,” says Keesh, as well as dive deeper into his relationships with mentor Jill (Hope Davis) and Tina (Anna Deavere Smith).
“It’s trial by fire,” Keesh says of the challenges the young lawyers face episode after episode. “You’re going to mess up, you’re going to fall hard, you might get fired, but it’s one of those age-old lessons: you have to get back up and you’re stronger because of it.”
This goes for both the defense and prosecution sides, and Rappaport says that his character is a “little sweetheart guppy from the Midwest” thrown into a “pool of sharks.”
“He’s like, ‘How do I measure up? How do I fit in?’” he says of Seth’s early struggles. “But we learn pretty early on what Seth’s true talent as a lawyer is, and it comes from his heart, and there’s growth and change.”
Rappaport reveals that Seth “proves himself” to his colleagues in the fourth episode. That comes with a new confidence, which can be a double-edged sword, especially as he is continually tested not only by his cases but by his boss, Roger (Shenkman).
“Roger sets up this competition factor between the young prosecutors, and there’s a real hunger for who gets the better case and also you see some people’s cases get stolen right out from under them,” Rappaport says. “That’s the environment we’re dealing with, and I think that’s part of Roger’s training program to strengthen these guys.”
Despite the cutthroat environment and emotional cases, the cast still calls the show “escapist television.”
“The world is pretty dark right now, and this is not a stark raving comedy, but what I appreciate is that I get to have some lightness. This show, it isn’t snarky. The people in it really believe in something — on separate sides of the fence — but they really believe in something,” Smith says. “Part of their youth is their idealism, and I think that’s a fantastic message to be sending to people out there who are trying to figure out what they’re going to do with their lives. Let’s face it, the world is a very overwhelming place at the moment, but I think the characters are all providing an idea of an alternative universe where you can be passionate. There are strands of compassion and care between them all in some ways.”
“For The People” premieres Mar. 13 at 10 p.m. on ABC.