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John Grisham’s the Client

A one-shot film concept if ever there was one, author John Grisham's "The Client" translates uneasily to the small screen as a series theme. Two-hour movie pilot is OK to anyone unaware of the original, but premise promises to wear thin, quickly.

With:
Cast: JoBeth Williams, John Heard, Polly Holliday, David Barry Gray, Terry O'Quinn, Miles Fuelner, Ossie Davis, Deborah Rush, William Converse-Roberts, Ashley Josey, Paul Kandel, Mary Ann Hagan, Taurean Blacque, David Michael Mullins, Gary Anthony Williams, Scarlett Johansson, Brett Kinard, Tim Black, Patty Mack, Rhonda Griffis, Lonnie Smith, Jack Shearer, Josh Clark, Karyn Greer, Judge Luckey, Jeff Portell, John Newberg.

A one-short film concept if ever there was one, author John Grisham’s “The Client” translates uneasily to the small screen as a series theme. Two-hour movie pilot is OK to anyone unaware of the original, but premise promises to wear thin, quickly.

Regina (Reggie) Love is a down-on-her luck family-practice attorney, a recovering alcoholic who’s involved in a bitter custody case with her former husband, a physician. In the TV movie, as in Grisham’s differently plotted novel and the 1994 hit film, Love becomes enmeshed in a murder case involving a young boy, with the scenery soon strewn with corpses. Same thing happens, albeit with a young girl and fewer dead bodies, in series’ first hourlong episode. With her personal track record and the apparent course of this series, Love had better swith from family to criminal law pretty soon — that or contract law, in which her assistant, Clint McGuire, is said to specialize.

Grisham fans will be immediately put off by producers’ inexplicable shift of locale to Atlanta from author’s favorite setting, Memphis. There may be a reason (probably economic) to shoot in Georgia, but if Wilmington, N.C., can sub for Atlanta on “Matlock,” why can’t Atlanta be passed off as Memphis here, as Los Angeles is for Atlanta in subsequent episodes?

Two-hour pilot finds Love (Jo-Beth Williams) defending Rafe Collins (Miles Fuelner), kid who witnessed a murder in a bus-terminal men’s room. Murderer is soon after him; murderer’s boss, too. Concurrent storyline finds Love representing Phoebe Halliwell (Deborah Rush), abused socialite wife of local mover and shaker Burt H. (Terry O’Quinn). What are the odds that the two cases will coincide?

Case with Rafe — whose father (Ashley Josey) is wrongly accused of the murder — is nonsense from the get-go, as Love herself realizes in Judith Paige Mitchell’s script. “Your father needs a criminal lawyer,” she wisely tells him. Soon after, she tells Rafe that, as a minor, “You have no legal obligations, you have no legal rights. You can’t hire anybody, not even an attorney.” Clearly, she hasn’t seen (or read) the original “Client.” Or maybe she has; she takes Rafe on as a client anyway, helps close the murder case and keeps the court from separating Rafe and his charmingly ne’er-do-well old man. (So what if he marries, then abandons, rich widows? He takes good care of his son.)

As in the original, Reggie brings the clients home to stay with her and Momma Love (Polly Holliday); as in the original, baddies have no problem finding her there. Her assistant (David Barry Gray) is younger and hunkier than in the film , perhaps an attemp — like Ben Matlock’s youthful assistant-of-the-week — to lower demographics a bit. Clint is from Brooklyn (read: street-smart) and working for Reggie while on probation. Maybe when Reggie learns that there’s a contract out on one of her young clients, Clint can interpret the fine print.

Director Paul Shapiro manages to keep the many story threads distinct.

Show is cast better than it deserves, with Williams gamely in for film’s Susan Sarandon (by first hourlong episode, she’s softened her look a bit), Holliday nicely restrained as Momma, and Ossie Davis noble as the friendly judge who pops up all over the place. Atlanta district attorney Roy Foltrigg (John Heard) takes an unusual hands-on approach to local crime when he’s not running for higher office. In TV movie, he’s flirting with Reggie; by first hourlong episode, he’s reconciled with his wife.

Apparently, Reggie’s custody battle with her ex (William Converse-Roberts) will continue; In TV movie, an attenuated chase seene keeps her from attending a hearing, an excuse the judge (Jack Shearer) doesn’t accept.

To be continued. (Series debuts Sept. 19 in its regular Tuesday 8 p.m. timeslot.)

John Grisham's the Client

Sun. (17); 9-11 p.m.; NBC

Production: Filmed in Atlanta by Michael Filerman Prods., Judith Paige Mitchell Prods. and New Regency in association with Warner Bros. Television. Executive producers, Michael Filerman, Arnon Milchan, Paige Mitchell, Robert Nathan; producers, Tom Luce, Lynn Raynor; director, Paul Shapiro; writer, Mitchell; based on characters from the novel by John Grisham.

Crew: Camera, Tom Burstyn; editor, Scott Vickery; production designer, James Allen; sound, Mary Ellis; music, Stephen Graziano.

Cast: Cast: JoBeth Williams, John Heard, Polly Holliday, David Barry Gray, Terry O'Quinn, Miles Fuelner, Ossie Davis, Deborah Rush, William Converse-Roberts, Ashley Josey, Paul Kandel, Mary Ann Hagan, Taurean Blacque, David Michael Mullins, Gary Anthony Williams, Scarlett Johansson, Brett Kinard, Tim Black, Patty Mack, Rhonda Griffis, Lonnie Smith, Jack Shearer, Josh Clark, Karyn Greer, Judge Luckey, Jeff Portell, John Newberg.

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