Ellen Gray: USA Network's 'Legal' more fun than NBC's 'Harry'

Sarah Shahi (right) and Michael Trucco star on "Fairly Legal."
Sarah Shahi (right) and Michael Trucco star on "Fairly Legal."
Posted: January 20, 2011

FAIRLY LEGAL. 10 tonight, USA.

IN THIS WEEK'S battle of the Offbeat Legal Dramas, NBC is once again about to be outshone by its sunnier corporate sibling, the USA Network.

NBC's "Harry's Law," which premiered Monday and stars Oscar winner Kathy Bates as a grumpy patent attorney-turned-storefront lawyer, is set in a low-rent neighborhood inside what used to be a high-end shoe store.

USA's "Fairly Legal," which debuts at 10 tonight after the return of "Royal Pains," is set in a high-end law firm - not to mention all the prettiest parts of San Francisco - and stars Sarah Shahi ("Life") as a grumpy lawyer-turned-mediator who actually seems to wear the kind of shoes "Harry's Law" uses as props.

One makes me want to throw my shoes at the screen, especially when Bates' character starts tilting at one of David E. Kelley's metaphorical windmills.

The other makes me want to hit Zappos.com.

USA Networks chief Bonnie Hammer, who also oversees NBC Universal's cable production, prefers the word "brand" to "formula" in describing the methods that have resulted in lots of us not minding that USA's dramas are more entertaining than educational, but

she'll be the first to tell you that hers is a network that "knows what it wants."

"What makes USA's thing so powerful is that every show kind of fits together," Hammer told me at a press breakfast in Pasadena, Calif., last week.

"If we do a cross-promotional spot with, say, a Sarah Shahi and a Mark Feuerstein [of 'Royal Pains'], those two look like they belong together."

Characters, she said, are "as important or more important than the actual story," and the network looks for "blue skies - which you hear a lot, but for us that really means hopeful, aspirational, not dark, not negative . . . always with a dollop of humor, a lot in some shows and just smart, funny dialogue in others."

"Fairly Legal" literally opens tonight with a blue-sky shot over the sailboat where Shahi's character, Kate Reed, has been sleeping with the guy who's supposed to be her ex-husband (Michael Trucco). Yet it's Shahi, whose Kate may be grumpy but who somehow gets to smile more in one episode than she might have in an entire season of "Life," who lights up the screen and makes "Legal" a keeper.

Less than 'Perfect'

The network that gave us four hours of "Today" tonight expands its Thursday comedy block to a third hour.

That means moving NBC's "30 Rock" and "Outsourced" to 10 and 10:30 p.m. to make room for a new sitcom, "Perfect Couples" (8:30 p.m., Channel 10), and the return of "Parks and Recreation" (9:30 p.m., Channel 10).

I'm all for anything that keeps "Community" on the air - even if I wish it didn't have to go head to head with CBS' equally funny "The Big Bang Theory" at 8 - and while I'm still not as big a fan of "Parks and Recreation" as some, I like what the addition of Adam Scott ("Party Down") has brought to it, and to star Amy Poehler, whose Leslie Knope shines brighter in his presence as she tries this season to hold on to her parks-department job while reviving the harvest festival in Pawnee, Ind.

What NBC does well these days (and when was the last time someone began a sentence that way?) is to put together these oddball ensembles and then stick with them long enough to let viewers become invested.

Maybe that's what the about-to-be-Comcast network thinks will happen with "Perfect Couples."

A show about couples-at-different-stages-of-their-relationships, "Couples" is a show that you may feel you've already seen on CBS (where it's called "Rules of Engagement") or ABC ("Better With You"). Fox's version, which is actually kind of funny, is called "Traffic Light" and premieres Feb. 8.

There being few original ideas in television, execution matters. And though "Couples" fields a good cast, including Kyle Bornheimer ("Worst Week") and Mary Elizabeth Ellis ("It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia"), the two episodes I screened mostly felt forced and formulaic.

One fun fact not found in the network bios: Hayes MacArthur, who plays one-half of the couple striving hardest to be "perfect," is named after the actress Helen Hayes.

"Helen Hayes was my great-aunt," MacArthur said last week, adding that his wife, Cherry Hill's Ali Larter ("Heroes"), gave birth in December to their son, whose middle name is Hayes.

James MacArthur, TV's first Dano on the original "Hawaii Five-O," who died in October, was his father's cousin, he said.

In his more immediate family, his brother's also an actor and "my mom was a singer in Chicago, and still is a cabaret singer, and she was very theatrical," he said. "And my dad's such a character - at the dinner table." *

Send e-mail to graye@phillynews.com.

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