As a legal procedural emanating from outside the imaginings of Dick Wolf, “Bluff City Law” at least represents something novel for NBC. But its understanding of the workings of the legal profession is frustratingly limited in a familiar way — not merely because it falls so nearly into timeworn cliché but also because it seems to trust its audience so little. In its first two episodes, what works tepidly well here is a family dynamic that at least feels unusual; what does not are heard-them-all-before clichés about the power and responsibilities of attorneys. In its relentless speechifying and overly ingratiating need to constantly show off and burnish its moral compass, “Bluff City Law” resembles no current show more than “This Is Us” — and is proof that what has made that show a hit cannot easily be replicated in the courtroom.
Here, Caitlin McGee plays a young lawyer recruited by her father (Jimmy Smits) to join his firm after the death of her mother; the trauma has reorganized her life such that a radical reshuffling of the deck seems like a good idea. What seems most appealing to her is not the proximity to Dad — a figure from whom she’s been estranged and one whose commitment to legal principle seems greater than to family — but the idea of making change. McGee’s Sydney Strait goes in a short time from working on behalf of big corporations to attempting to bring them to heel.
An able cast — including, perhaps most notably aside from the leads, Jayne Atkinson in a supporting role that allows her to bring her typical mixture of sharpness and warmth — only makes clearer how much the script hangs them out to dry. In describing a prisoner who seems resistant to the appeals process despite evident flaws in the case that convicted him, Atkinson urges a junior lawyer to “Find out why he’s chosen ‘guilty’ as his legacy.” McGee exhorts jurors that, “In here, we get to say what kind of world we want this to be” shortly before Smits flashes her a post-it reading “Change the world.” And not even Smits, a beloved TV star, has quite enough faith from his audience to convincingly sell the following line: “This moment, it’s the moral arc of the universe coming around, to give you the chance to hold them accountable for forcing you to live all of these years with that guilt… and regret.” The final two words, delivered after a long pause, feel almost like a joke on the part of the writers, proof that they could extend an already overwritten and incoherent sentence yet one beat further.
Lawyers who defend the wronged against the wrongdoers have a compelling and telegenic role to play. So why does this series keep, in its first two hours, trying to over-prove the case? Audience members are intelligent enough to understand that juries represent an opportunity for normal people to exert change; they’re not addled enough by modern TV drama clichés to confound someone’s legal status with their “legacy,” whatever that means. “Bluff City Law” is all burnish and big, brassy words. What it badly needs is a bit more grit and a heavy dose of confidence. Only a show this uncertain of its audience’s affections would be this needily verbose.
“Bluff City Law.” NBC. Sept. 23. Two episodes screened for review.
Cast: Jimmy Smits, Caitlin McGee, Scott Shepherd, Barry Sloane, Michael Luwoye, MaameYaa Boafo, Stony Blyden, Jayne Atkinson.
Executive Producers: Dean Georgaris, Michael Aguilar, David Janollari.