There will be viewers disappointed by the lack of sensationalism in ABC’s new drama For the People.
Boasting Shonda Rhimes as its big-name executive producer, For the People is not really in the Scandal-How to Get Away With Murder vein at all. In five episodes sent to critics, nobody has instigated an inappropriate relationship with workplace superior and nobody has pulled anybody into a supply closet for illicit nookie. Nobody has committed and/or attempted to get away with murder. None of the episodes end with cliffhangers or with earthshaking revelations that carry through into subsequent hours.
The cast is sexy, but — refreshingly — the show is about work.
Don’t go into For the People expecting the sensationalist procedural melodrama often associated with the Shondaland brand and you might find yourself appreciating the simple pleasures of a deep ensemble cast delivering reams of clever dialogue and grappling superficially with the legal issues of the day. In this respect, For the People is much more like ABC’s hit drama The Good Doctor in its comfortingly familiar approach to genre storytelling.
Created by Scandal veteran Paul William Davies, the first episode spends a lot of time setting up the lofty ambitions of what is really a very simple premise. The action is set at the Southern District of New York Federal Court, where Judge William Byrne (Vondie Curtis-Hall) tells a pack of young lawyers that “the cases are hard, the stakes are high” and welcomes them to the “Mother Court.” There’s lots of talk about the court’s significance, as if that’s really relevant to viewers.
The conceit is simple: There’s a group of young AUSAs mentored by Roger Gunn (Ben Shenkman). Their ranks include a son of a senator groomed for bigger things (Regé-Jean Page’s Leonard Knox) and the ultra-efficient Type-A Kate Littlejohn (Susannah Flood). The prosecuting team also employs Seth (Ben Rappaport), who is dating Allison (Jasmin Savoy Brown), part of the gang of public defenders led by Jill Marcus (Hope Davis). That group features Britt Robertson’s Sandra and Wesam Keesh’s Jay. Each week, the teams face off in the Mother Court in two or three cases, building grudging respect or enmity through the adversarial process.
The cases in For the People are basic. Even when there are semi-recognizable guest stars, the procedural emphasis is almost always on the bigger-picture issue, rather than the intimate human details of the trials. You can usually tell within two minutes, “Oh, OK. This is going to be the case that’s about whistleblowers and document leaking.” Or, “Ah, somebody has something to say about mandatory minimums” or “Fun, somebody read an article about courts using sentencing software.” Cases that, in the real world, would unfold over weeks or months or years can be quickly dispatched by unsupervised junior litigators in 42 minutes, with each side getting to make its points in ways that are balanced and reasonable. Did a show like The Good Wife prove that you can take on issue-of-the-week storytelling and still make the cases themselves memorable and quirky (and layer in soap opera serialization at the same time)? Sure. For the People isn’t as good as The Good Wife. So what of it? The characters here are believably smart, talk fast and banter amusingly.
For the People is hardly the first legal show to look at cases from each side, but the way it lets the back-and-forth structure dictate pacing often feels fresh. The third episode, the one with the whistleblower, is especially adept in whipping between how Sandra and Kate were assigned to the case, approach negotiations and how each develops admiration for the other. It’s easy to imagine how much more material a show like this would be able to mine if it had a cable or streaming running time. It’s also easy to appreciate its tightness and economy.
If there’s a stealth star on For the People, it is casting director Linda Lowy, who has performed similar duties on all of the Shondaland shows. It’s a smartly assembled three-tier cast that takes a lot of pressure off of the young stars. Need a little instant authority? Go to Curtis-Hall or to Anna Deavere Smith, as the clerk of the court, whose job is whatever the plot wants it to be on a weekly basis. Need somebody who can give instant veteran seasoning to otherwise boilerplate boss-like mentoring? Shenkman delivers world-weary scorn and Davis conveys right-below-the-surface passion, and both are such utter pros that if you give them focal stories for an episode, they shine, but if you only give them a handful of lines, they’ll still make you believe that their characters are constantly on duty even if we don’t see them. It’s a gift.
As for the young actors, either Lowy or Rhimes and her lieutenants have their preferred types, and everybody in the For the People cast looks like somebody who could have fronted a Shondaland show in the past. Mostly that means that all colors of the prettiness rainbow are represented and the actors are all wholly capable, even if you sense that only half of them are speaking with their native accents. Page, definitely not speaking with his normal British accent, is one of several photogenic standouts and a reminder that the cast of the recent Roots remake was absolutely loaded with great young actors still in need of TV vehicles. Page gets to share a lot of scenes with the ensemble’s other likely breakout, Flood. Although Flood and her character’s similarities to HTGAWM co-star Liza Weil border on distracting, the writers deserve credit for recognizing Flood’s ability with lengthy speeches, and she’s quickly able to turn Kate from a fearsome, unemotional robot into something really interesting. Going head-to-head with Flood in that whistleblowing episode brings out the best in Robertson, back to playing a character roughly her own age before Hollywood probably casts her as a high schooler in her next movie.
With dramas like this on broadcast TV, even moreso shows like this on ABC, there’s an expectation that the show will want you to quickly invest in these characters through whom they’re sleeping with or whom you want them to be sleeping with and, for the most part, For the People doesn’t much care. It’s more interested in how hard they’re working and why they’re working so hard, and that’s where it spends almost all of its time. Maybe it’s harder to get obsessed with a show whose characters’ obsession is with justice and their job, but I respected Davies and the cast’s sturdy approach and lack of salacious pandering. I know that’s not a sexy recommendation.
Cast: Britt Robertson, Jasmin Savoy Brown, Ben Rappaport, Anna Deavere Smith, Susannah Flood, Wesam Keesh, Regé-Jean Page, Hope Davis, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Ben Shenkman
Creator: Paul William Davies
Premieres: Tuesday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (ABC)