2 lapel-grabbing debuts on TV

"The Firm" stars: Juliette Lewis (left), Callum Keith Rennie, Josh Lucas, Natasha Calis, Molly Parker.
"The Firm" stars: Juliette Lewis (left), Callum Keith Rennie, Josh Lucas, Natasha Calis, Molly Parker. (FRANK OCKENFELS / NBC)
Posted: January 08, 2012

TV is throwing down the gauntlet in 2012. No more subtle appeals to the viewing public. Judging by the two new series debuting Sunday night, the medium plans to get you in a headlock, with aggressive, no-holds-barred programming, and force you to watch.

NBC dives into the fracas with The Firm, which is about a saintly lawyer (Josh Lucas), who doesn't know his shyster partners are taking him for a ride into a nasty criminal conspiracy.

Not enough dramatic tension for you? Try this on: The Chicago mob also wants our noble attorney's head on a platter to settle an old score. Now let's see you reach for the remote.

The series assumes the mantle of the 1993 film of the same name, which in turn was adapted from John Grisham's first blockbuster legal thriller. Lucas has the Tom Cruise role as Mitch McDeere, only it is now 10 years after Mitch went undercover for the FBI to bring down a crooked, mobbed-up law firm in Memphis at great personal peril.

It's puzzling why NBC would pay for the Grisham imprint, because in TV, backstory is something that gets resolved and disposed of before the second commercial break in the pilot. (After this two-hour debut at 9 p.m., The Firm moves into its regular slot later in the week, at 10 p.m. Thursdays.)

After a decade in the Witness Relocation Program, Mitch, his wife (Molly Parker), and daughter (Natasha Calis) have decided to put down roots in our nation's capital - using their real names. He has opened a hole-in-the-wall practice with a saucy, gum-snapping receptionist (Juliette Lewis) and his ex-con brother (Callum Keith Rennie) as his investigator.

Mitch is a pretty soft touch. When a client says, "I can't afford to pay you," he replies, "Don't worry about it." Didn't this guy learn anything at Harvard?

Then he makes the mistake of affiliating himself with one of those big, stuffed-shirt law firms, and before you know it, he's on the phone with his wife, panting, "We're in a code red. It's happening again."

The Firm seems pointed toward a curious tension, not unlike that of the old Fugitive series: 40 minutes of wise Socratic dialogue and 5 minutes of fleeing in terror.

All things considered, Mitch's life looks almost humdrum next to that of Marty Kaan (Don Cheadle), the central figure in Showtime's House of Lies (10 p.m. Sundays).

When we meet Marty, he's naked in bed with his similarly unclothed, drugged-into-a-stupor ex-wife Monica (Dawn Oliveri). Marty has got to dress and prop her up before their adolescent son Roscoe (Donis Leonard Jr.) walks in the room and witnesses this tawdry tableau.

You see, even when Monica is stone-cold sober, she has the maternal instincts of a pit viper, and poor Roscoe is going through a gender crisis, and, well, Marty's life is complicated. Really, really complicated.

And that's before he slides into one of his slick suits that costs as much as your car and goes to work as a platinum-tongued management consultant. His job is to convince sleazy business and corporate tycoons that they should fork over big bucks for him to massage their images. Yes, Marty Kaan is the ultimate con man.

Given the multimillion-dollar stakes Marty and his team (which includes Kristen Bell) are fighting for, and the way he is constantly snatching triumph from the jaws of certain defeat, he remains remarkably unflappable and glib at all times.

House of Lies is an oversexed, overstimulated mess, working strenuously to seem shocking and unique. One of its narrative quirks is to have the action around Cheadle freeze while he breaks the fourth wall, turning to the camera to explain some euphemistic consulting buzzword.

Cheadle is one of the few actors with the brio to pull off a character this audacious, but House of Lies leaves him looking more exposed than dynamic.

Contact television writer David Hiltbrand at 215-854-4552, dhiltbrand@phillynews.com,

or @daveondemand_tv on Twitter. Read his blog,

"Dave on Demand," at www.philly.com/dod.

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