DOUBT: Wednesday 10PM on CBS – If Nothing Else Is On…
As highly prized as the talents of Shonda Rhimes are, it takes the continuing line of her failed imitators to remind us just how difficult it is to duplicate her touch. Conviction and Notorious are two tries that went splat earlier this season, and sometimes even Rhimes fumbles herself, as with the first season of The Catch (which will be back for another try this spring). Now we have CBS’s DOUBT, which on paper should have a better chance than most of splicing the Rhimes DNA, since its creators Joan Rater and Tony Phelan spent 9 seasons as writer/producers on Grey’s Anatomy; the cast even features Katherine Heigl, who before burning all bridges in sight was the original breakout star of Grey’s.
All they’ve managed, however, is a synthetic stew of Rhimes elements, a sentient android at best to her created humanity. The setting is a NY law firm headed by Isaiah Roth (Elliott Gould, basically rerunning his role from Ray Donovan). The firm’s leading team is made up of Sadie (Heigl) and Albert (Dule Hill), who bicker like brother and sister while managing the murder trial of Billy Brennan (Steven Pasquale), a rich surgeon accused of killing his college girlfriend decades earlier. The case is complicated by–wait for it–the fact that Sadie and Billy are falling for each other. Billy’s trial provides the main thread of the plot, but meanwhile, Cameron (Laverne Cox) and her associate Tiffany (Dreama Walker) handle the case of the week, which in the pilot (written by Phelan and Rater, directed by Adam Bernstein) involved a paranoid schizophrenic who pushed a woman onto the subway tracks. Nick (Kobi Libii) is a newcomer to the firm with a shady history, and since every dramatic pilot these days needs a big reveal in the final scene, Judith Light shows up as Sadie’s mother, who it turns out has been in jail for murder since Sadie was two years old (and, it’s heavily implied, was also the great love of Isaiah’s life).
Rater and Phelan try, a la Grey’s, to mix light comedy with the life-and-death drama, but both ends come off as glib. The relationships feel more rote than organic, as Sadie is of course Isaiah’s special favorite (they hang out on the firm roof together, like James Spader and William Shatner on Boston Legal), and naive Tiffany can barely utter a line of dialogue without referring to the fact that she comes from the midwest. More damningly, the central relationship between Sadie and Billy has no heat at all, despite the fact that Pasquale is an extremely compelling actor, and Heigl is seen to much better advantage here than she has in her recent years in the Hollywood wilderness. Together, though, they’re no more exciting than tea and toast Phelan and Rater also seem to have little interest in legal plotting, and the twists in the opening hour are rudimentary at best.
The series creators know how to tell a story in a slick, painless way, and they’ve assembled a pleasing ensemble. Compared to other recent CBS 1-hour horrors like Pure Genius and Training Day, Doubt is at least watchable. Memorable, though, is out of its range, and so is the mix of startling narrative and deep-dish character study, with dashes of humor and sex, that Rhimes has made her own. Doubt is unfortunately the appropriate title for the prospects of this one.