'Doubt': TV Review

Courtesy of JoJo Whilden/CBS
No doubt the cast deserves better.

From Katherine Heigl to Dulé Hill to Steven Pasquale to Laverne Cox to Dreama Walker, CBS' 'Doubt' strands a great cast in a weak legal drama.

If the upside of 450-plus scripted television shows is that there are ample employment options for the actors you love, the downside comes when a favorite actor finds steady work on either a bad show or a show that you're just not going to watch.

It's a selfish sadness. I can rave about how great Paget Brewster is in quirky comedies like Grandfathered and I can bemoan how Brewster returning to Criminal Minds means I'll never see her onscreen again as long as she continues to stalk creepy unsubs, but it's not especially supportive if I root for an actor I like to sacrifice a steady paycheck.

Enter CBS' Doubt, a soapy legal procedural that feels like a subpar version of The Good Wife by way of a subpar version of a Shonda Rhimes-free ABC Shonda Rhimes show (though still not quite as subpar as Conviction and Notorious, ABC's own confused efforts to do Shonda without Shonda). Through the three episodes sent to critics, Doubt gives few justifications for sticking with it, other than an undeniably super cast of actors I'd be eager to watch weekly on a much better show.

Doubt focuses on a boutique firm of defense attorneys skilled at battling on behalf of their clients, but I mostly wanted to enlist their services to save Katherine Heigl, Dulé Hill, Elliott Gould, Laverne Cox, Steven Pasquale and Dreama Walker.

Heigl, still somehow in a better suited vehicle than her NBC dud State of Affairs, plays Sadie, a determined lawyer who fights like most people breathe. I know this because accused murderer (and successful pediatric surgeon) Billy Brennan (Pasquale) tells her, "You fight like most people breathe. It's your natural state."

Sadie fights because she fears most people won't. I know this because she replies, "I fight because most people won't!"

This is how people talk on Doubt. Like I also know that Isaiah Roth (Gould) is a famously inspirational defender of the underdog, because everywhere he goes people tell him that he's a famously inspirational defender of the underdog, and that second-year associate Tiffany (Walker) is from Iowa because all three episodes I've seen include mention of her Iowa past. In fact, in three episodes, Tiffany tells us she went to University of Iowa law school, that she has a boyfriend in Iowa, that not everybody in Iowa grew up on a farm and that people in Iowa don't yell. I guess the writers don't want to leave any, um, doubt about these expositional details.

The show's title, of course, refers to that whole "reasonable doubt" thing, but also to the uncertainty how Sadie is presumably feeling regarding Billy, who is so darned dreamy she can't help but have tinglings for him even though it's unethical and he may also have killed his girlfriend 24 years earlier. Since the show is one of those "Several weekly cases, plus a snail's pace on one seemingly bigger case"-hybrid procedurals, it requires you to share Sadie's doubt and investment in Billy's guilt or innocence, which I didn't do. Heigl and Pasquale, a compelling actor TV keeps struggling to properly utilize, have little-to-no chemistry, and the distribution of clues in Billy's case isn't well enough deployed to build drama. Instead of doubt, I was left with disinterest. Granted that disinterest is a form of uncertainty, it's not the desired one.

Lack of chemistry with an ostensible love interest aside, Heigl is reasonably well cast on a show that wants to careen between serious drama and ostensible screwball banter that never comes together properly. To make an allowance: The music in the three episodes was stunningly bad, over-indicating every intended tone shift. Since the screeners said the music was temporary, there's the possibility a better score could improve things. Heigl has some OK back-and-forths with Hill's Albert, who is otherwise just "determined" in dull ways, rarely making proper use of the Psych veteran's versatility.

Generally, recognizing talent was something this show's casting director did well, but the writers haven't nailed the right way to utilize the assets at hand. The pilot, written by Grey's Anatomy veterans Tony Phelan and Joan Rater, finds a good comic duo in the diminutive Walker and the towering Cox, who plays a transgender lawyer who draws from her own experiences with injustice, but then the characters aren't paired again. Instead, Cox is stuck with a character whose cases have consistently been the show's weakest and whose earnestness plays to none of the Orange Is The New Black co-star's strengths. Walker, in turn, squanders episodes paired pointlessly with Nick (Kobi Libii), the series' obligatory point-of-entry new guy, who is supposed to be an ex-con from Brooklyn, but instead plays as a part a studio requested to smooth out exposition in a way that didn't work at all. Libii seems so ill at ease with Nick's thin characterization that I assumed he was British playing American, but he is not.

Joining the wasted main cast, Doubt has a deep bench of guest stars including Bill Irwin and Domenick Lombardozzi. Judith Light is so good and intense in fleeting appearances as Sadie's incarcerated mother that everything else appears slack in comparison, which isn't the same as wasting Light, but is perhaps more frustrating.

It's a bit of a cruel trick that CBS is premiering Doubt the same week as its Good Wife spinoff The Good Fight on CBS All Access. Both shows feature great casts, headline-ripping court cases, occasional doses of humor and some serialization, but the "Here's what you get for free and here's what we'll make you pay for" comparison does Doubt no favors.

But that's a review for a different day.

For now: Free the Doubt Seven, not that I want to begrudge anybody employment in these times of uncertainty.

Cast: Katherine Heigl, Dulé Hill, Elliott Gould, Laverne Cox, Steven Pasquale, Dreama Walker, Kobi Libii.
Creators: Tony Phelan and Joan Rater
Premieres: Wednesday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (CBS)