There were a lot of nips and tucks in the now-concluded 2d season of USA’s FAIRLY LEGAL. The show overall had a less comedic feel, and the heroine, Kate Reed (Sarah Shahi), was turned into more of an adult, which is to say a conventional TV protagonist. Kate is still a mediator who works at a San Francisco law firm although she despises litigation, determined instead to convince people into reaching reasonable solutions by agreement (albeit agreements she often forces on them). However, through some machinations that took place off-screen between seasons, Kate shifted abruptly from a troublemaking annoyance at the firm her father had founded who was in the process of being fired, to an independent-minded but more cooperative partner. The head of the firm, Kate’s late father’s trophy wife Lauren (Virginia Williams), managing partner at the firm, transformed from a villainous bitch who was out to get rid of Kate to a frenemy who invited Kate to live in her house when Kate’s houseboat burned. Some secondary characters and subplots were dropped, and the new character of Ben Grogan (Ryan Johnson) was added, as a cocky new partner in the firm who could trade flirtatiously hostile banter with Kate and eventually form a romantic triangle with her and her ex-husband and (for most of the season) current lover Assistant District Attorney Justin (Michael Trucco).
In tonight’s season finale, written by Executive Producer Peter Ocko and directed by Anton Cropper, several plotlines came to a head. In a somewhat awkwardly structured narrative, an employment termination mediation involving a lesbian couple who worked at a local television station led to a quashed news story about a mysterious corporation that had received favors from the city. This conveniently, if unconvincingly, tracked back not only to the city District Attorney (Esai Morales), whose reelection Justin has been challenging, and who Kate has now forced out of the race, but to the billionaire (Lloyd Owen) Lauren has been sort-of-dating, although she knows he’s under investigation by the FBI. Meanwhile, Kate and Justin’s decision to find a place to move back in together fell apart, not unexpectedly, and although supposedly Kate was now going to take some time to herself, the episode’s ending made it clear that Ben has the upper hand in the competition for her affections. (The perfect apartment that he steered her toward–and that Justin rejected–turned out to be next door to his own.)
By and large, the changes in Fairly Legal have been for the better, as the show has been less silly and, after an iffy start, the addition of Ben has worked out well. In the end, though, Fairly Legal‘s one genuine strength is the same one it had from the start: Sarah Shahi, who’s not only gorgeous but can play smart and funny. While the episodic plots aren’t great, that’s true of just about every show on USA. If the series still hasn’t quite come together, it’s more because the ensemble has yet to fully mesh. For example, even though it’s better for the show that Lauren isn’t an outsized villainess, it’s still not clear who she is instead–the series never took advantage of Kate and Lauren sharing a house to develop any relationship between them, and her semi-romance with the billionaire hasn’t worked at all. It was also probably a bad idea to have the season revolve around Kate getting involved again with Justin, which is a relationship we already knew was doomed in Season 1. Admittedly the idea was to show Kate retreating to what was safe because she was scared of starting up with Ben, but understanding that a character is in a rut doesn’t make the rut any more interesting to watch.
All of Fairly Legal‘s changes didn’t do a tremendous amount for the show in the ratings, although comparisons between seasons 1 and 2 aren’t apples-to-apples, since Fairly Legal was removed from its plum slot after USA’s hit Royal Pains and moved to Friday nights, when ratings are lower. Some decline was to be expected, and the show has performed decently, watched by around 2.5 million viewers, with an 18-49 rating in the 0.6-0.7 range. It’s a bubble show, and its survival probably depends on the strength of USA’s development for next season. Shahi definitely has what it takes to be a TV star, but at this point, tinkering with Legal even more may just lead to another hung jury.