“For the People” is so gratingly self-conscious that at times, especially in the pilot, it’s as if every character is frantically waving their hands and shouting, “I’m on TV! We’re in a TV show!”
When friends and roommates Sandra (Britt Robertson) and Ali (Jasmin Savoy Brown) interact in the stilted premiere episode, the subtext is — you know we have to establish being best friends onscreen as quickly as possible because this is a show, right? With emotional maneuvering that is so transparent it’s almost cynical, “For the People” presents us the Shondaland gold standard of six-odd young overachievers, who all talk too fast and smolder with unresolved sexual tension. Right from the first frame they’re scrambled together in various heterosexual romantic pairings, like shaking dice in a cup and seeing what happens next. But unlike Rhimes’ best shows, “For the People” lacks even a modicum of subtlety — a subtlety often provided by the lead actor, be it Viola Davis or Kerry Washington. It’s zingy, and follows the right patterns, but “For the People” is almost impossible to invest in.
In the show’s defense, everyone seems to be trying very hard. But the strain is obvious to the viewer, in a way that distracts from the attempt to be absorbed by the show. Creator and showrunner Paul William Davies mimics the most kinetic elements of Rhimes’ trademark world-building, which infuses every new case at work with ridiculously high stakes and lip-trembling, impassioned closing arguments. But there’s little reason to invest in any of the six ensemble leads, who all present different naive approaches to the law, with the absurd over-qualifications to prove it. In lieu of characterization, “For the People” name-drops — a couple of degrees from Yale Law, clerking for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, working at the American Civil Liberties Union. But this isn’t characterization; it’s the lazy semblance of it. It’s reading someone’s LinkedIn profile and attempting to determine who the person behind the resume is.
“For the People” is short on recognizable human beings. Hope Davis, to her credit, puts in another turn as the resident reasonable adult in another bonkers, and Anna Deavere Smith, if wildly miscast, is fun to see onscreen. But the relative talents of the cast are squandered in a series of melodramatic legal standoffs. The youngsters are fresh-faced, their monologues are impassioned, and workplace drama has never been higher-pitched. But none of this covers for the fact that the show lacks soul.