“Doubt” is what might happen if a Shonda Rhimes show got lost on the way to production and accidentally ended up at CBS. It touts many of the hallmarks of Rhimes’ glitzy workplace soaps: The legal drama stars Katherine Heigl, formerly of “Grey’s Anatomy,” as Sadie Ellis, a heroine with twisted parentage, consuming investment for her work as an attorney, and a dysfunctional sex life. An actress from one Rhimes show, with all the personality traits of Olivia Pope from “Scandal” and the profession of Annalise Keating in “How to Get Away With Murder” — “Doubt” feels very familiar.
At the same time, the show does feel very CBS; as if the Shondaland methodology for creating drama was tempered by some of the chilly soul-searching of “The Good Wife” and the fraught intergenerational dynamics of “Blue Bloods.” Creators Tony Phelan and Joan Rater both worked on “Grey’s Anatomy” before shifting to CBS’ “Madam Secretary” — two shows that share the same notion of its talented characters trying to make the world a better place through the flawed institutions they work for, but with vastly different moods and tones. You can see both at play in “Doubt.”
Yet the standout of the cast is not Heigl but Laverne Cox’s Cameron, who expands into the role to offer it a touch of gravitas that gives the show much-needed grounding. Cameron, like Cox, is trans, and her gender identity is discussed in the pilot with careful explanation before becoming a part of the scenery with quick, natural ease. The third episode introduces the beginnings of a flirtation with a rival lawyer (apparently, on “Doubt,” characters are required to dabble in professionally perilous romances), which provides an avenue for truly unique storytelling for network television.
Heigl’s Sadie, however, provides the soap. The spine of the season is Sadie’s ongoing case, defending handsome pediatric surgeon Billy Brennan (Steven Pasquale) against a murder charge from 16 years ago. The evidence suggests Billy’s guilty, but his totally dreamy eyes suggest otherwise (at least to Sadie). The two embark on a romance that looks as cheesy as it sounds. All this reminds the firm’s head Isaiah Roth (Elliott Gould) of the time he got too close to a client, a client he still visits in prison… played by the incomparable Judith Light…. who, let’s just say, has more connection to the firm than meets the eye.
This encompasses half of the firm’s employees and its characters’ subplots. There is also Albert (Dulé Hill)’s marital issues, Tiffany (Dreama Walker)’s attempts to adjust to city life after moving to Iowa, and Nick (Kobi Libii)’s efforts to be taken seriously as an ex-con who studied law in prison. “Doubt” is so full of plot that it almost trips over itself, and its plotlines, while hurried, are often adventurous and intimate about identity politics and corporate maneuvering. But the writing lacks the brilliant quality of any of the show’s forebears, whether that is Rhimes’ shows, “The Good Wife,” or even the talky Aaron Sorkin series. “Doubt’s” leads quip at each other with a rhythm that is at least supposed to read smart and sophisticated — but the deftness of the words doesn’t always keep pace with the tempo.
Still, given just how ambitious and daring the show is, words seem beside the point. There’s a brazen quality to “Doubt” that is frothy enough to be silly but grounded enough to take on topical, controversial subjects. It doesn’t require too much effort to let unfold, and with such a talented, deep bench of actors, it’s usually enough to watch them bounce off of each other while flaunting their impossibly stylish accessories.