The latest new series under the Shondaland banner, “For The People,” is a legal drama set in New York City, and while its cases won’t be ripped from the headlines “Law & Order”-style, the show is designed to depict a large scope of issues affecting the nation today.
“It’s the highest profile trial court in America, and [sometimes] these cases tend to be high profile,” series star Vondie Curtis-Hall says about the real-life United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, which is fictionalized in the show. “Bernie Madoff was tried there, Tom Brady’s ‘Deflategate’ was tried there, the Rosenbergs, the Pentagon Papers, Thurgood Marshall served there before going to the Supreme Court. That’s the weight of these cases and the weight of the court. I think we do honor that in many ways.”
The series, created by Paul William Davies, follows a fictional group of public defenders, prosecuting attorneys, clerks and judges as they handle cases that range from “terrorism to wine fraud,” says series star Anna Deavere Smith.
‘For the People’ takes on terrorism right from the jump in the pilot episode, with new public defender Sandra (Britt Robertson) getting assigned a case about a young man who was arrested for a plot to blow up the Statue of Liberty. The slightly lighter wine fraud story (“Somebody faking million-dollar bottles of wine,” Curtis-Hall and Smith explain) comes later in the season.
“For The People” will also do a story about sexual assault — but from a slightly new angle. “It deals with certain issues [where] just because you’re a bystander and you didn’t do [it] doesn’t mean you’re necessarily innocent,” says star Wesam Keesh.
Also on the show’s agenda: mandatory minimum sentencing, human trafficking, immigration issues, political corruption, Neo Nazis, and the war on drugs.
“One of the focuses of the show is that people who do not look like Jeff Sessions have a harder time in court,” says star Hope Davis. “There is a case where a young guy from the projects in Brooklyn is asked to be a courier, and it turned out to be some drugs, and it turned out to be a couple of grams over the limit. This is a guy with a kid who’s just trying to make some cash, got picked up and tossed into jail because he made a couple of minor mistakes when he was younger.”
For both Davis and star Jasmin Savoy Brown, this case, which occurs in the fifth episode of the season, hits very hard.
“It was so eye-opening because it was the difference of one gram of weight — not that very much at all — but that difference was the difference between [getting sentenced to] 15 years or life,” Brown says. “I know a lot about the injustices black people in this country specifically face [when it comes to] weed and drugs, but I didn’t know specifically down to that number.”
Davis, who lives in Brooklyn, says she sees issues like the ones on the show every day, which lends itself to the realism of the show — but also hopefully to the conversation the show creates.
“I do think the more people understand this system — this branch of our government — the more active they’re going to want to be. It is enlightening in that way,” Davis says. “The more I have grown to understand what the Attorney General’s role is and how what he does affects people so intensely — millions of people — the more it makes me want to become involved, so you hope it will be that for [viewers].”
“For The People” premieres Mar. 13 at 10 p.m. on ABC.