So, given how clear USA is in its branding, why does its new show, 'Suits' (10PM ET Thursday) feel muddled, despite some strong performances? I don't think there's anything wrong with the show's premise, which concerns two somewhat mismatched legal eagles. But the central relationship isn't as interesting -- or as central -- as it should be, nor am I sure the show's writers have a clear grasp of the kind of jeopardy that's fun to witness vicariously.
Here's the kind of jeopardy that isn't fun to witness vicariously: Finding out whether patent paperwork was filed correctly. Variations on this scenario transpire in the show's second episode, and these paper-shuffling scenes just didn't feel like they fit on the network of Hamptons docs and enterprising spies.
The pilot for 'Suits' (which runs 82 minutes with commercials) is briskly competent, if a little padded, and I quite enjoyed the lead performance from Gabriel Macht as Harvey Spector, the best legal "closer" in Manhattan. Spector is arrogant and entitled, but then, he appears to be every bit as good at his job as people say he is, plus he has a amused sparkle in his eye that lets you know that he's enjoying his performance as a corner-office big shot just as much as you are.
In the pilot, Harvey comes across Mike Ross (Patrick J. Adams), a hustler who knows the law cold but doesn't have an actual law degree. Even so, Harvey hires Mike as an associate at the firm, and even tries to pass him off as a Harvard Law grad.
The thing is, these two guys should form the core of the show, and the fact that they're hiding a secret from everyone around them should drive both the tension and the emerging friendship between them. A similar USA show, 'White Collar,' got the tricky dynamic between the lead guys right much more quickly than 'Suits' has, and given how important this central relationship is, it's weird that the show wanders away from it so frequently.
A fair amount of the show consists of Harvey telling Mike to complete some legal task that Mike has no idea how to do and has to figure out from the ground up. A bewildered Mike looks for colleagues who will help him and tries to fend off fellow associates who try to manipulate him, but, generally speaking, watching someone else flail through legal paperwork and navigate standard office politics is just not that compelling.
Macht and Adams are appealing performers, especially Macht, who makes Harvey's almost-douche status enjoyable, and the difference between their approaches -- Harvey pretends not to care about others, while the street-smart Mike may care a little too much -- could be the basis for a reasonably decent legal drama.
But the storytelling in the first couple of episodes is so muddled that, mechanically and emotionally, events don't quite land as they should. It's not really clear why Harvey is taking such a big chance in hiring Mike, and in the pilot, an ongoing threat that Mike faces feels manufactured, as do scenes of Mike and his frail grandmother (of course Mike has to have a sick grandmother that he's taking care of. This is USA Network -- he can't lie about his legal bona fides just because).
Gina Torres, who plays a senior partner at the firm, Meghan Markle and Sarah Rafferty constitute the show's female cast, but none of the ladies get anything particularly interesting to do in the early going. Rick Hoffman, who plays the firm's disciplinarian/creepy comic relief, gets rather too much to do in the second episode, which adds to the feeling that Mike and Harvey are too disconnected at that stage. Hoffman's a skilled character actor, but he's best used in small doses, especially when 'Suits' is still trying to establish why we should care about the lead characters' fragile connection. The second episode is just too convoluted to do that with any logical or emotional efficiency.
'Suits' is a show that I'll occasionally check in on to see whether its early growing pains were just that or indicators of systemic problems. It hasn't yet proven that it can find consistently satisfying things to do with the legal drama (Harvey's "closing" scenes are fun though I can see them becoming a bit of a crutch). Still, it's better than 'Franklin & Bash,' and may yet prove that it can fit comfortably within the USA wheelhouse of "light but not too light" dramas.
By the way, Thursday also marks the return of USA's 'Burn Notice.' For more on the new season of the show, check out this recent interview with creator Matt Nix (by the way, Part 2 of that interview will be published Friday).
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