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The fish rots from the head. And in USA’s new political procedural Pearson, a shadowy spinoff from feather-light legal drama Suits, that fish is Chicago, decaying from the inside out thanks to its corrupt mayor and his sinewy network of venal backers and malleable sycophants.
Thankfully, new brooms sweep clean. (Or so they try.) Pearson is named for Gina Torres’ steely do-gooder attorney Jessica Pearson, newly arrived from Suits’ New York to clean up Chicago as a fixer in the mayor’s administration. In a previous backdoor pilot, Jessica headed to Chicago to file a lawsuit against the city on behalf of an estranged aunt, only to end up accepting a high-profile job with shady young mayor Bobby Novak (Morgan Spector) in exchange for dropping litigation. Now wracked with guilt, Jessica must figure out how to support her struggling South Side family while publicly protecting the Novak administration (and privately scouring it from the inside). The central conflict revolves around her crushing, stiletto-healed ambition competing with her inconvenient sense of justice.
AIR DATE Jul 17, 2019
As Torres flips from supporting to lead in this new story, think The Good Fight, but dryer and less clever. There’s apparently not much humor to be had when there are city aldermen to lobby and union leaders to hammer. Arguably 95 percent of Pearson’s scenes take place in a dark room between two characters at odds with each other, a static pattern that became funnier to me the more I recognized its consistency. That’s about as much fun as I extracted from this moody 10-episode opening season.
Still, Pearson is a shrewd adult drama that takes its characters seriously. Like The Wire, it distills municipal infrastructure into palatable little chunks for the audience to nibble on. (Each episode is named for a local leader conflicting with City Hall: “The Superintendent”; “The Donor”; “The Political Wife.”) The show contains only mere hints of sex, romance and violence; you get the sense that the producers know what Pearson is not more so than they know what it is. It is not a soap. It is not a legal buddy dramedy. But in leaching out the elements that would make the show a little pulpier, they end up with freeze-dried fruit leather: a nutritious but tame diversion.
As Jessica begins to untangle the Gordian knot of Chicago politics, she’s thwarted at every turn by those who disapprove of her taking this job: her partner, her family and, most intensely, the mayor’s lackies. The standout of the supporting cast is Bethany Joy Lenz (One Tree Hill) as aggressive city attorney Keri Allen, the only full-bloom character besides Jessica herself. (Prior to the first episode, Keri had Jessica disbarred, adding an underlying jaggedness to their eventual ‘frenemiship.’) Keri is Mayor Novak’s right-hand woman, a canny and loyal vizier who also happens to be his longstanding mistress. (Spector’s Novak is disarming, resembling a young Rahm Emanuel.)
Pearson doesn’t opt for tawdry thrills here, instead focusing on Keri’s conflicted love for the man. Every time she says she’s “in a relationship,” you feel the embarrassed pang of witnessing someone in complete denial of reality. One of the season’s best and most surprising storylines sees Keri openly bond with her lover’s ill wife (Betsey Brandt) over their mutual allegiance to the complicated man.
Lenz sparks every scene she’s in, pulsing Keri with confidence, insecurity, feistiness and vulnerability. Her needle-sharp scrappiness is a perfect foil for Torres’ slick regality. Like Olivia Pope 2.0, Jessica is a strutting, crusading mid-career fixer draped in a chic white silhouette. (In fact, given its racially inclusive, woman-forward cast led by an Afro-Latinx actress, you can’t help but attribute at least some of Pearson‘s progressive edge to the influence of TV pioneer Shonda Rhimes.)
Jessica tussles with her dueling impulses to both do right and win at all costs. Her critical cousin Angela (Chantel Riley), a South Side single mom with two young kids, constantly pressures Jessica to give into her deep-down moral imperatives. This woman is such a martyr she elects to live on the streets in solidarity with her fellow evicted neighbors, rather than with Jessica in her cushy apartment, in order to send a message to City Hall. Unfortunately, Angela comes off as more a storytelling device than flesh-and-blood human, her arc merely a narrative window into the lives of the everyday Chicago citizens Jessica is supposedly looking out for.
Pearson has better luck with Jessica’s idealistic assistant Yoli (Isabel Arraiza), a young DACA recipient whose activism and political naivety is often at odds with her ability to effectively do her job. (She and Jessica have one of the most true-to-life dom-sub office dynamics I’ve seen on TV, Yoli often chastened and contrite when Jessica admonishes her.) Much of the season revolves around Yoli’s fight to get her undocumented mother released from an immigrant detention center.
Heavy on the sepia-orange filtering, Pearson carries a sense of foreboding only amplified by its actual murder mystery involving Novak’s stormy “bastard half-brother” Nick (Simon Kassianides). Even this plot, however, comes off as cold as steel, since we learn everything about it from dialogue alone. Pearson is all talk, little action.
Cast: Gina Torres, Bethany Joy Lenz, Morgan Spector, Chantel Riley, Isabel Arraiza, Simon Kassianides, Eli Goree, Betsy Brandt, Wayne Duvall
Executive producers: Aaron Korsh, Daniel Arkin, Gina Torres, Chris Downey, Gene Klein, Kevin Bray, David Bartis, Doug Liman
Premieres: Wednesday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (USA)
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