Freeview channel Dave has become so synonymous with endless reruns of BBC light entertainment programmes like Top Gear and comedy panel shows such as Mock The Week, QI and Room 101 that it’s frequently lampooned for it on those very shows. But of late the channel has been getting somewhat bigger ideas, first of all with original programming of its own (albeit sticking firmly to the template of its existing stable of shows) and now going a step further with this purchase of a first-run US show by the name of Suits.
Since the description of “legal comedy-drama” invariably conjures up the saccharine, quirky tweeness of a David E. Kelley production, I’ll instead refer to Suits as a legal drama with a witty sense of humour. It’s got the same wisecracking feel pioneered decades ago by Howard Hawks and perfected in recent times by Aaron Sorkin, whose West Wing managed to be completely realistic and serious high drama, but which could also blend in jokes and even out-and-out slapstick without upsetting the underlying realism. Sort of like real life does everyday, in other words.
Suits goes in the same general direction, with the basic premise being key to providing much of the vein of humour threaded through the show. High-flying corporate lawyer Harvey Specter, a partner in the large and prestigious New York law firm Pearson Hardman, takes on as his new associate the super-intelligent Mike Ross who possesses a photographic (eidetic) memory and encyclopaedic knowledge of the law but who has never actually been to law school and has no practical experience – making him simultaneously both the smartest and dumbest man in the room at any given time.
Ross’s fish-out-of-water, wrong-side-of-the-tracks character provides much of the catalyst for the humour in the show, as it starts to have an effect thawing out Specter’s previously glib, uncaring and arrogant personality while they work together on legal cases. Ross’s lowly status within the firm also provides access to the lesser-seen setting of the lower ranks of a huge corporate law firm (a chillingly real and soulless world of orientation walkthroughs, obscenely long hours, small grey cubicles and humiliating random drug tests) that is a world away from the usual cosy boutique law firms we see on TV in shows such as LA Law, Ally McBeal and Harry’s Law that invariably consist of a just a handful of unlikely eccentrics.
Despite the presence of a quality ensemble cast (the ever-reliably obnoxious Rick Hoffman as Specter’s chief rival, Louis; the classy and gorgeous Gina Torres from Firefly and Angel as Specter’s steely boss, Jessica; the stylish and arch Sarah Rafferty as Specter’s practically perfect PA, Donna; and a nice one-scene cameo for Victor Garber at his most suave as the firm’s founder) the pilot episode is very much a two-hander between the characters of Specter and Ross. Of the two it’s Gabriel Macht as Specter who is very much the star name here, with a long CV of movie roles from Behind Enemy Lines and The Recruit through to the title role of CGI-heavy superhero movie The Spirit. Given that his character is the very essence of the smooth but self-absorbed corporate lawyer everyone hates in real life, Macht is well cast in that he manages to bring something of that movie star aura to Specter while managing to bestow him with enough warmth and underlying vulnerability to keep us on his side even when Specter’s being at his most swaggering.
The more difficult role to define and hence to pitch perfectly is that of Mike Ross, who needs to be both bumbling and awkward, whip-smart and clever – the overwhelmed underdog who is charming and funny all at the same time. It’s a tough ask of any performer and the series wouldn’t work at all if it got the writing or the casting wrong here, so the fact that the not-previously-well-known Patrick J. Adams got a SAG nomination for best actor in a drama series for his performance (the kind of category usually packed out with the likes of Steve Buscemi, Bryan Cranston and Michael C. Hall) speaks volumes. Adams genuinely shines in this role and appears tailor-made for it, and it’s very much the kind of part that can be a launchpad for big stars of the future. Despite the talent of the rest of the cast, the show is just that bit duller when he’s not on screen, and truly comes most alive when he’s bantering with his co-star Macht with whom he has evident good chemistry.
This review is all based on a single (pilot) episode of course, so the question now is whether the show can keep up the quality and blossom still further. The signs are promising: Suits has already aired 12 episodes on the USA Network and has been renewed for a second series of 16 episodes starting this summer. That hopefully means it not only continues to live up to the early promise, but also gets a chance to spread its wings – and could be well worth keeping an eye on.
Suits currently airs in the UK on Dave on Tuesday nights at 9pm, also repeated on Wednesday at around 10.40pm and Saturdays at 8pm. And that’s not even factoring in time-shifting sister channel Dave ja vu.