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For The People -Black’s Law- (ABC) pilot preview: Shonda Rhimes by-the-book? Not exactly, your honor…

Written and produced by Paul William Davies (Scandal). Also produced by Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice, Scandal, How To Get Away With Murder, The Catch) & Betsy Beers. Directed by Tom Verica (Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice, Scandal). For ABC Studios & Shondaland. Network draft 1/13/17. 57 pages.

Description: Brand new lawyers working for both the defense and the prosecution at the Southern District of New York (SDNY) Federal Court, aka “The Mother Court”, have to handle the most high profile and high stakes cases in the country – all as their personal lives inevitably intersect. Sandra, Allison, Seth, Jay, Kate and Leonard may not be friends but starting from now, whether they like it or not, they’ll be together almost 24/7, fighting for justice and fighting each others…

With Britne Oldford (American Horror Story, Skins US, Hunters), Lyndon Smith (Parenthood, 90210, Extant), Ben Rappaport (Mr Robot, The Good Wife, Younger), Susannah Flood (Chicago Fire), Wesam Keesh (Awkward), Regé-Jean Page (Roots, Waterloo Road), Anna Deavere Smith (Nurse Jackie, The West Wing, Blackish), Hope Davis (Wayward Pines, American Crime, In Treatment), Vondie Curtis-Hall (Daredevil, Chicago Hope), Ben Shenkman (Royal Pains, The Night Of, Angels in America)…

   

You’ll like it if you already like: Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, How To Get Away With Murder, Law & Order

Likely timeslot: in the TGIT, thursday at 9 after Grey’s Anatomy or at 10 once How To Get Away With Murder ends

 

A lot of you asked me on Twitter those past three months when the Black’s Law preview would come out. Shonda Rhimes’ pilots always get a lot of attention for very good reasons: after all, she’s the queen. The truth is, it’s one of the first scripts I read this year but I was so conflicted about it that I decided to give it time to let it sink in and not to write about it right away. Weeks have passed and I just couldn’t do it as my first impressions faded away. So I re-read it to make sure I was really thinking what I thought I was thinking. I also read Grey’s Anatomy pilot script for the first time. As you may know, Black’s Law is said to be in the vein of the medical drama when it started. It’s undeniable. Thought it was a good idea to compare. I was wrong. It got me even more disturbed. Now that the upfronts are coming in a few days, I have no choice but to do it. So here we are, friends. Black’s Law will certainly be picked-up to series by ABC anyway. The contrary would be quite a shocker. Not only because it’s Shonda Rhimes and ABC can’t afford to say no to her -which is not entirely true, they already did a few times- but because it’s simply one of the best pilot scripts they have in contention this year. No matter what.

Black’s Law doesn’t start with a crazy flashforward or a steamy love scene. It starts with a black screen and a dictionary entry saying “AB Initio: Latin from the first act, or meaning from the start” and then we’re back to black. Suddenly, it bursts into song. An energetic, propulsive one. And it stops when an alarm rings. Our heroine, Sandra, is waking up in the soft light of sunrise at 5.30. She’s wearing modest clothes in a not so modest apartment. Then she goes out: we’re in the vibrant and awesome city of New York and the song kicks in again. She takes the subway, she’s lost, she buys a banana and she finally arrives at her destination at 6.44: “The Mother Court”. It’s her first day. She wanted to be the first to arrive and she is. It’s a standard, modest but efficient start that tells us two things: this show is mostly about Sandra Black, as Grey’s Anatomy focused heavily on Meredith Grey early on -though there’s no voice over here- and also that the writer is not looking to replicate a Shondaland formula that may have been overused by now. Smart move? Only time will tell. That’s where I am conflicted the most: as a huge Shonda Rhimes fan, I was looking for something splashy and it turns out to be a regular legal drama, less soapier than expected but character-driven of course. It’s a good one, it seems. Not at a The Good Wife level, but still. Is it what ABC viewers want? Isn’t it a bit disappointing? Well. Now you know what to expect.

So, we’re exposed to three main cases in this first episode, which is a lot and doesn’t leave much space to the personal stories of our main characters, though we learn a thing or two about them through the way they handle the situations they’re in. It’s a big ensemble. There are 10 regulars. 6 young lawyers in their thirties. 3 of them are prosecutors. The other 3 are public defenders. They have 4 bosses in their fifties. We meet all of them in the first few pages in a classic Shonda Rhimes’ way that always works. You can already feel the competition mounting. That’s where the show is really smart. There’s not only a competition between the prosecutors or between the public defenders to take the best case or to make the best impression, but there’s also the promise of new battles every week between the prosecutors and the public defenders that are facing each others in court. In general, legal dramas are about the lawyers of one firm and they work together. Here, there is no firm and there is no working together. At least for now. Then love and friendships will complicate things. And we can’t wait to get there! There’s frustration when the pilot ends -without any cliffhanger by the way- but a good one. We can feel great things are coming up but we’re not there yet. In the era of Peak TV, let’s just hope people will give it a chance and a bit of patience.

Let me introduce you to the characters now. I’ll try to be quick. So Sandra is a sensible, fiercely intelligent and independent girl, who’s burdened by the decision to leave a Supreme Court clerkship that made her somewhat famous in the legal world. We learn in the pilot what really happened (don’t expect a big OMG moment) and what drove her to the law. She’s a cute, simple, fresh heroine that I’m already fond of. Allison is Sandra’s best friend. They go way back and now they live together. It’s impossible not to think of Meredith and Cristina. Let’s hope their friendship is as strong. Allison is a wealthy and generous woman and she’s in a relationship with Seth, a smart and reasonable but inexperienced recent law school grad. Of course, they become adversaries in their first case at “The Mother Court”, which causes a lot of drama. It’s not very surprising but perfectly handled. Seth works with Leonard, a cocky and case-stealing colleague, with a considerable swagger, and Kate who just wants to stay out of the drama, do her job and get the win. Of course, it won’t be that simple. Finally, Sandra and Allison are teamed up with Jay, a perhaps too big-hearted fellow. They don’t sound like clichés, they form a promising group but we can’t say they feel like characters we haven’t seen before either (is that even possible though?). Interesting point: Sandra doesn’t have any love interest yet. Which is kind of revolutionary in a Shondaland show!

I won’t describe all the bosses characters, they are not very developed yet but let’s just say they add some humor and more conflicts to the show. Tina, the  tough, intimidating, no-nonsense SDNY court clerk, will probably be the audience’s favorite. She’s a crowd-pleaser. She’s funny. And she happens to be played by Anna Deavere Smith, who’s hilarious. Hope Davis is a great actress too. She plays Jill, the boss of all public defenders; she’s smart and savvy. The equivalent of Miranda Bailey in Grey’s in a way. Maybe you’re asking about the cases tackled -fast- in this pilot. The big one, that Sandra is on, is about a young man who’s accused of plotting the bombing of the Statue of Liberty. Yeah, big one I said. It made me think of a storyline from Homeland‘s recent sixth season. Black’s Law wants to be revelant, so of course they chose to deal with terrorism, THE subject matter these days. It’s done perfectly, with nuance and a bit of criticism against the police and against the law overall. It’s a morally commited show that seems to have a lot to say about the system and how much it can be unfair sometimes, especially when you’re up against the State. The other cases are about a fraud and a con man. Nothing very sexy. You know what it misses? Something fun, eccentric. Yeah but… we’re in the Federal Court so…not gonna happen.

Black’s Law is NOT a Shonda Rhimes by-the-book show. It’s less less soapy than Grey’s Anatomy, less sexy than Scandal, less twisty than How To Get Away With Murder, but it’s engaging and promising nonetheless in a more classic, regular way, with characters that you care about and some Shondaland trademarks. It doesn’t want to make viewers jump out of their seats at every corner, it’s more of a slow burn. It doesn’t ambition to be the “sensation of the year” but more like a sensation for years to come, a show that ABC will be able to rely on for the long haul. Let’s just hope the TGIT viewers will welcome Black’s Law as they’re supposed to: with kindness, goodwill and patience. This one’s a keeper. 

Spark (ABC) pilot preview: Can the new Empire be a dystopian steampunk soap?

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Created and executive produced by Michael Cooney (Identity, 6 Souls). Directed by James Kent (Testament of Youth, The White Queen, Marchlands). Also exexutive produced by Ian Sander & Kim Moses (Ghost Whisperer, Profiler). For ABC, ABC Studios & Sander/Moses Productions. 58 pages.

Description: It is current day America, but not as we know it. Imagine electricity had never been discovered – in its place, gas and coal run the world and power our everyday devices. Now imagine the amount of power the people who own the gas and coal in this world would command. Two rival families, the Stocktons and the Lavelles, are battling for ages until a rebellious young woman, a tinker named Pin Jones, can level both their empires with a spark of invention…

With Antonia Thomas (Misfits), Regé-Jean Page (Roots, Waterlo Road, Fresh Meat), Tom Brittney (The Five, The Syndicate), Lena Olin (Alias, Welcome to Sweden, The Ninth Gate), Alex Lanipekun (Homeland, 24, MI-5), Austin Hébert, Tracy Ifeachor (The Originals, Crossbones), Vondie Curtis-Hall (Daredevil, ER, Chicago Hope), Rachel Hurd-Wood (Home Fires)…

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Despite the huge success of Hunger Hames worldwide and the honorable results of such movies as Divergent and The Maze Runner –-let’s not forget a few missteps like The 5th Wave recently– the dystopian genre has a hard time existing on television. Which is weird when you think about it since these movies work like series, through multiple episodes and cliffhangers at the end to make you come back the following year. We had The Lottery on Lifetime, if anyone remembers it. Guess not. The excellent The 100 of course. And not much else. Other attempts (The Selection at The CW, Delirium at FOX) were not picked-up to series. And I fear Spark will meet the same end. Even though I’m not totally convinced by its potential, I’d be curious to see what’s gonna happen in case it’s ordered. It could become another huge disappointment like Blood and Oil. Or maybe the new Empire is hiding behind it…

Most of the success of the pilot -a presentation was ordered first but they upped it to a full-length pilot then, which is a good sign– resides in its execution. The setting, the landscapes, as well as the costumes, need to be taken care of properly so that it doesn’t look cheap. The writer has a real vision of how this city and those people should look like in this alternate reality, circa 2016. It’s based on Steampunk, an aesthetic inspired by 19th-century industrial steam-powered machinery. He even offers a “look book” at the end of the script with visuals for cars working with coal cumbustion, underground bar and dance clubs, coffee machines or the heroine’s high heels. They decided to shoot in Prague, Czech Republic, to reduce the costs while most of the cast is coming from Europe, especially the UK. There’s no big name but promising newcomers, like Anthonia Thomas, a mini-Rihanna who was stunning in Misfits. Risky. But in case you haven’t notice, let me break it to you: the show can be labelled as “black”. 5 of the most prominent characters are. Good strategy. ‘cos that’s what it is. I’m probably going too far but imagine ABC slots the show on Wednesday at 10pm after Blackish, when Empire ends on FOX… Wouldn’t it be damn smart? Hire me ABC!

The network describes the show as a lavish primetime soap of passion, greed and hope. It’s true, it is. If it looks new and different from the outside, it’s very classical in the inside. Sometimes, it also feels a bit like a CW show with slightly older characters. Pin Jones is yet another Katniss Everdeen, a whip smart, courageous, independent, kind-hearted girl, soon to be torn between two men and two rival families: her boyfriend Captain Aidan Stockton, a rugged and sexy all man who’s deeply in love with her, he even hides a ring in his drawer; and Alex Lavelle, a more sophisticated handsome man, kind of douchy, who knows exactly who she is when he met her and has an agenda but can’t help liking her more than he should. You get the picture. A good ol’ love triangle. Pin’s mother is dead. Of course. She has a delinquent brother. A loving father. They’re tinkers. So they’re poor. Aidan’s mother is a great bitch. We’ll love hating her. Alex has a brother, who’s a terrible person. And an evil father. And Aidan’s most close friend and colleague happens to be Alex’s brother’s fiancée. Still following? Told you. It really is a soap.

But there’s action too, and many surprises. A few pages in, there’s a huge explosion, that kills someone. And later on, a coal train derails. And other people die. Won’t reveal you more but be sure a lot happens in this pilot. Like… maybe our Pin is on the verge of discovering something huge, that will change the face of humanity as they know it… At first, I had a hard time getting into the script. Those stories about gas and coal are so unsexy and sad. It lacks sparkle, electricity. It takes time before it gets interesting. It takes time before you can connect with the main characters. Too much time probably. But at some point, somehow, it starts to work. And you can see the potential and the emotional strength of this story. It resonates with our past and our present. It’s brighter than it looks. It’s more than a soap.

Spark is certainly a leap of faith for ABC. Sometimes, it’s good to take one. Especially since the network is in a tough situation. Before new boss Channing Dungey gets too scared of screwing her first little victories up –hoping she has some– there’s a window of opportunity to try new things, be bold. Spark is new. Sort of. And bold. A bit. And out of time. Why not giving it a chance?