COMMON LAW: Fridays 10PM on USA – Change the Channel
CBS may own the world of serious procedurals, but USA Network has the patent on the jocular ones. Monk, Psych, Burn Notice, Suits, In Plain Sight, Fairly Legal… the list goes on and on. In every show, there’s a quirky protagonist (“Characters Welcome”) who brilliantly solves crimes or rights wrongs while quipping, and it’s a formula that works. A remarkable number of these shows have been hits, making USA arguably more of a “real” network than CW. Even mighty Casey was known to strike out, though, and COMMON LAW, the network’s latest effort, is its least promising in recent memory.
In fairness, it should be noted that USA films its pilots to run long, for the practical purpose of being able to sell them as self-contained TV-movies if they’re not ordered to series. While you might think that an extra half-hour in a pilot would be an opportunity to introduce increased depth and substance, actually it often leads only to more filler and tedium, and that’s certainly the case with Common Law‘s pilot. Later 1-hour episodes should only benefit from having to tell their stories with less time to spare.
The more fundamental problem with Common Law is that it’s just not very interesting. The pilot script is by big-time movie writers Cormac and Marianne Wibberley (how cool are the Wibberleys? They’re so cool that they take their writing and creating credits as “The Wibberleys”–although they use their full names as producers), who usually write big-budget features like Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, Bad Boys 2 and the National Treasure movies (the Common Law pilot is directed by their National Treasure guy, Jon Turteltaub). Those movies spend scores of millions of dollars on giant action sequences, so characters and dialogue don’t matter so much. In television, they’re all that matter, and Common Law falls short in both departments.
The USA-required quirk in Common Law comes from the fact that LAPD partners Wes Mitchell (Warren Kole) and Travis Marks (Michael Easly), while brilliantly matched as cops, do nothing but bicker. They’re like an old married couple, and people mistake them for gay, but They’re. Not. Gay, so shut up about that. Wes is an ex-lawyer control freak who’s judgmental and tightly-wound; Travis is a smooth operator who takes careless risks and doesn’t follow the rules. Wes is divorced from Alex (Elizabeth Chomko) but still in love with her (she left him when he became a cop because she feared for his safety); Travis sleeps around. Neither will ever admit that he’s wrong. They get on each other’s nerves so badly that Captain Sutter (Jack McGee) has ordered them to couples therapy, under the supervision of Dr. Ryan (Sonya Walger), so when they’re not arguing about anything else, they argue about therapy.
And that’s the show. As in most USA series, the plotting of the individual episodes is rudimentary at best (in the pilot, anyone paying attention to the dialogue can guess who the killer of a judge’s son will be halfway through), and the appeal is supposed to come from the charm of the leads and the wit of the banter. Here both charm and wit are at a premium. Also, there’s virtually no supporting cast–the Captain and the shrink are the only other regulars in the pilot, and each only has a couple of scenes–which means the show really is just Wes and Travis, scene after scene of them disagreeing with each other, needling with increasing hostility, and then sharing an intuitive leap toward solving the crime.
Kole and Ealy are fine, but they’d have to be much better than fine to pull off a concept with so little meat on its bones. (Ealy was far more interesting as one of the devious partners on The Good Wife.) Hopefully at some point the show will give Walger more to do than smile indulgently at the two jerks.
USA is very smart about scheduling, and with Blue Bloods done for the season, there’s no competition at all for Common Law in its Friday 10PM slot, so it could find an audience. For the network, though, it’s a step backwards, an all too common example of a genre USA has done far better in the past.