Given all the success USA has enjoyed with alliterative female stars — Mary McCormack, Piper Perabo, now Sarah Shahi — one hesitates to summarily dismiss “Fairly Legal.” Conceptually, though, it’s about as middling as dramedy gets, featuring Shahi as a mediator — a job that’s part attorney, part psychologist. It’s also a prescription for small-ball cases, the legal equivalent of the minor medical maladies on “Royal Pains.” That program, too, found its niche, but if USA’s latest proves equally popular, it’s further evidence that TV (and indeed, the world) has a frightening surplus of lawyers.
As if cognizant of its premise’s modest nature, series creator and sitcom veteran Michael Sardo loads up “Legal’s” periphery with eccentric supporting characters and family drama. Shahi’s Kate Reed works as a mediator for a larger San Francisco law firm, one now presided over by her icy stepmother Lauren (Virginia Williams), who assumed control following the death of Kate’s father. (Kate identifies callers on her cell with “The Wizard of Oz” characters, with Lauren naturally represented by the Wicked Witch.)
Kate also has an unorthodox relationship with her soon-to-be-ex-husband (“Battlestar Galactica’s” Michael Trucco), who we meet in the opener after their latest booty call. By day, he’s a prosecutor, opening the door to his own adventures in the realm of at-work politics.
Racing around the Bay Area (actually, Vancouver) in stiletto heels, Kate handles all kinds of cases, big and (mostly) small. They range from a would-be groom suing the hired help that messed up his elaborate proposal, to a grandmother and stepfather fighting over an orphaned kid — or, in the premiere, a haughty businessman (guest Ken Howard) feuding with his son over closing a major deal. There’s also a cranky judge (Gerald McRaney) with a chip on his shoulder when it comes to Kate.
Nothing here really pops, though, other than the world-class beauty of Shahi, who has yet to find a regular vehicle to capitalize on it. (She had little to do as the sidekick in NBC’s “Life,” her last series, which was preceded by “The L Word.”)
Even Kate’s mediation skills — meant to nudge people to see disputes from someone else’s perspective — aren’t executed wittily enough to rival a middling USA property like “Psych.”
All told, “Fairly Legal” feels as if the network — despite riding a nifty string of successes by placing a light spin on familiar genres — has dipped into this particular shallow pool once too often.
Granted, there’s probably an audience that will be moved by Kate’s mixed emotions about her ex, or those heart-to-heart chats with her dead father’s ashes — and maybe the show deserves a critic more apt to be moved by such sentimentality.
Then again, as Kate might grudgingly concede, who says life’s always fair?