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Heaven help ABC if Shonda Rhimes ever decides to take her talents to a different network. The new drama Notorious premieres Thursday in what has recently been Ms. Rhimes‘ Neighborhood, and if this woefully misguided attempt to embrace the sheer cuteness of ethical wrongdoing is a show the network views as being Shonda-esque, Shonda-adjacent or Shonda-compatible in any way, it speaks to the sheer disaster that would arise in her absence.
Almost every beat of Notorious feels off, every emotion or attempt at humor feels sour, so it’s disconcerting to see ABC taking such promotional pride in a show that should have been greeted with, “Oh well, this didn’t really work” at the end of the development season.
Air date: Sep 22, 2016
Created by Josh Berman and Allie Hagan and based on the real-life, apparently ongoing conflict-of-interest between criminal defense attorney Mark Geragos and Larry King Live news producer Wendy Walker, Notorious stars Piper Perabo as Julia, producer for a popular TV newsmagazine (hosted by Kate Jennings Grant’s Louise Herrick), and Daniel Sunjata as Jake, a flashy attorney. Julia and Jake aren’t romantically involved — she opens the series having office sex with a judge played by Marc Blucas — but they bicker like they are. They have a pact to always tell each other the truth and apparently to lie to absolutely everybody else in their lives, and they each trade secrets to their individual and mutual advantage. Along the way, they undermine journalistic and legal practice, look great doing it and are treated as just the most shiny, happy non-couple, even when they’re dealing with murder and infidelity.
Anti-heroes have been all the rage on TV at least since The Sopranos (and have been amply represented well before that), so I’ve liked plenty of shows in which the main characters are lovable sociopaths working on both sides of the border of criminality. I’m not even beholden to having to like these main characters, if I’m interested and intrigued by their criminality. So that means that the shows don’t have to take a side either. The perspective of the show can be aware that the characters are bad even if they don’t know it themselves, or the perspective of the show can be trying to force audience discomfort at making us embrace characters who, in real life, we would hate or fear.
I don’t know, though, when I’ve ever watched a show that was so unaware of how obnoxious, compromised and foul its main characters were and, in fact, treated them as so darned adorable. Here, some of the flaws go past Berman and Hagan’s script and go to Michael Engler’s direction, to the bright lighting, the jaunting soundtrack choices and the straight-up weird character beats. It isn’t just the two main characters, though Notorious seems completely uninterested in the fact that when Julia and Jake collude, the victims are TV viewers hoping for the truth and the general concept of justice, no matter how much “sexiness” or “repartee” you slather on. But when a handsome guy stalks a beautiful woman, flirts with her under false pretenses, uses his knowledge to professionally sabotage her and then, when she confronts him, sexually harasses her and then she still walks away with an “Oh, he’s such a sexy devil, maybe I’ll bang him sometime” grin, we are, at the very least, supposed to get why she thinks he’s charming; we aren’t supposed to think, “Screw these people,” which is what my notes say time and time again.
Were Geragos and Walker not involved with the show on multiple levels, I might think some of the distaste I felt for every character was intentional, I felt it so purely. But as is also the case with Dr. Phil’s participation on Bull, mostly real people don’t let their lives be the inspiration for TV shows in which the plan is to make them look like trash.
But maybe I just would have thought the main characters, and all of the characters in Notorious, were less noxious and more clever if what they were mixed up in were actually clever. The main plotline, involving a tech billionaire (Kevin Zegers’ Oscar) dealing with criminal charges, only adds additional conflicts of interest that don’t bother anybody as Julia uses Jake for ratings and Jake uses Julia to subvert a system that’s already completely weighted in his client’s favor. There’s nothing fresh or original to the case or its characterizations and nothing that any of Julia’s colleagues do is allowed to look smart either, because they’re just pawns in Julia and Jake’s game. I can’t think of a possible reason for viewers to invest in what seems like it will be an ongoing plotline, a result to root for.
Then there’s a separate B-story involving Jake’s law firm, including his brother Bradley (J. August Richards) and interrupting young attorney Ella (Aimee Teegarden) that played like a discarded Scandal subplot, but at least had the decency to end abruptly well before the end of the episode with shrugs for all involved.
It’s hard for any of the actors to get a grasp on their characters because so many of the dialogue exchanges are only crafted for expositional purposes — “You were in love with his wife.” “A long time ago.” or “I recognized him from my old job.” “At the escort agency?” — getting characters to repeat things they already know about each other because that’s easier than finding a way for the audience to learn those things organically.
Julia and Jake are written as amoral banter-bots, and there wouldn’t be anything Sunjata or Perabo could do to make them feel human. Sunjata barely tries and I’d be sure Jake was meant to be the clear villain here, except again for Geragos’ involvement. Perabo really does try and I want to give her full credit as she goes through a gamut of emotions, but Julia keeps doing things that run counter to the warmth with which the show treats her. The stars look fantastic and are gorgeously shot and that will be enough for some people to read chemistry here. I did not.
I get why this is an important role for Teegarden professionally, transitioning from Friday Night Light‘s Julie Taylor and teen roles to playing somebody old enough to be a lawyer, but her character is undermined at every turn. Grant’s character is supposed to read as rambunctious and free, not as desperate to look rambunctious and free, but actually just reliably inappropriate. And with Richards, I started pretending his character would be revealed to be his character from Angel and that an apocalyptic supernatural element would be introduced to wipe out the entire initial premise.
These are the things you think of and hope for when a 42-minute pilot begins to feel like a chore before the 20-minute mark.
Perhaps more than any other network, ABC puts on shows that might have felt OK or ambitious on paper, but are such blatant misses I don’t understand how they made it on the air, from comedies like Work It or Mixology to dramas like Wicked City or Kings and Prophets. The Shonda Rhimes shows that Notorious wants to emulate don’t always work, but they rarely fall below the level of guilty pleasure. With all the good TV these days, I might feel guilty if I give Notorious even a second episode.
Cast: Piper Perabo, Daniel Sunjata, Aimee Teegarden, Sepideh Moafi, Kate Jennings Grant, Ryan Guzman, Kevin Zegers, J. August Richards.
Creators: Josh Berman & Allie Hagan
Premieres: Thursday, 9 p.m. ET/PT (ABC)
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