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Reasonable Doubt begins in outrageously dramatic fashion, with protagonist Jax Stewart (Emayatzy Corinealdi) tied to a chair and pleading for her life at the barrel of a gun. The episode that follows continues along a similarly soapy vein: After rewinding six months, the show introduces a trio of love interests for Jax to play with and a splashy murder to untangle, setting us up for a season of steamy trysts and rug-pulling reveals.
But anyone who’s suffered through a mediocre thriller knows that bombshell twists alone aren’t enough to hook an audience if the people onscreen otherwise fall flat. Thankfully, Reasonable Doubt — which was created by Scandal vet Raamla Mohamed and boasts a premiere directed by Scandal star Kerry Washington — fares better than plenty of other would-be watercooler shows in that regard, grounding its drama in enjoyable characters, believable relationships and no shortage of platonic and sexual chemistry.
Cast: Emayatzy Corinealdi, McKinley Freeman, Tim Jo, Angela Grovey, Thaddeus J. Mixson, Aderinsola Olabode, Michael Ealy
Creator: Raamla Mohamed
At first glance, Jax seems to have it all: the hotshot career as a partner at a prestigious law firm; the lavish home filled with a beautiful family (even if her teenage son Spenser, played by Thaddeus J. Mixson, is clearly going through a bratty phase); the closet full of expensive-looking ensembles that read equal parts super-sexy and super-profesh. And upon closer examination, well, her life still seems mostly pretty enviable, in the part-aspirational, part-sensational, part-relatable way that leads of sudsy dramas tend to enjoy.
Sure, she and her husband Lewis (McKinley Freeman) are working through a separation, but that just opens the door for Jax to potentially rekindle a romance with Damon (Michael Ealy), the former client fresh off of 16 years in prison for a killing he didn’t commit. Sure, her high-stress job often comes at the expense of her personal life (as a frustrated Lewis is all too eager to remind her), but she’s just landed her highest-profile case yet defending vodka mogul Brayden (Sean Patrick Thomas) for the murder of his former colleague and affair partner, Kaleesha (Perri Camper).
And sure, it’s all a lot for any one person to handle at once, but Reasonable Doubt delights in Jax’s sublime self-assurance. It may not be competence porn on the order of Better Call Saul, but there’s an undeniable satisfaction in watching Jax verbally eviscerate a witness for the prosecution on the stand, or cut down a white male colleague (Christopher Cassarino) bristling at the idea of following a Black woman’s lead, or simply juggle her duties as parent, friend and legal counsel over a flurry of phone calls while zipping back and forth across Los Angeles.
Corinealdi is lots of fun to watch as Jax, and she’s blessed with scripts that allow her to embody multitudes. Depending on the scene, Jax can be prickly or tender, sensuous or funny, and Corinealdi plays all her many facets with equal gusto. She’s also, importantly, able to generate chemistry with seemingly everyone in the ensemble. Her regular hangouts with her tight-knit circle of friends (Tiffany Yvonne Cox, Nefetari Spencer and Shannon Kane) radiate the easy, casual joy of long-term friendships, and her scenes with Freeman’s Lewis ache with both lingering affection and stubborn resentment. But most intriguing of all are her scenes with Ealy, whose Damon is sensitive where Jax is prickly and steady where she’s skittish. Their every interaction is colored with tenderness, regret, and an irresistible hint of danger.
Capable as Jax is, Reasonable Doubt has no interest in painting her as a role model, or as some righteous crusader. She doesn’t mind getting her hands a little dirty for her clients, at one point needling a grieving family member as part of a PR play, and she’s well aware that the rich and famous people she’s defending aren’t all saints. More than once, she’s criticized by other characters, disingenuously or otherwise, for failing to stand up for women who’ve accused powerful men of sexual assault.
But both Jax and the series are certainly aware of the injustices and inequalities built into the world around her, whether it’s catching her barely contained eyerolls at the microaggressions she endures as the only Black female partner at her firm, or emphasizing via montage how both Damon and Brayden, two Black men on opposite ends of the wealth and power spectrum, are treated with utter contempt by white police officers. Flashbacks in the second half of the season unpack the heartbreaking case that altered the course of Jax’s career, and the childhood trauma that reverberates through her relationships to the present.
Whether it has much more to say about those ugly realities, whether they’ll become crucial to the plot, or whether the series simply wants to acknowledge they exist, isn’t yet clear in the eight hour-long episodes sent to critics for review. It’s possible the ninth and final chapter will tie them together into a coherent message, though I think it more likely that the bulk of its run time will be spent tying up the dozen or so loose ends left dangling as of the penultimate one.
If that’s the case, it’ll suit the show just fine — as it stands, it manages a reasonable balance of touching on such issues without getting so weighed down by them that it tips over into self-seriousness. Dark times might be ahead for Jax, as we’re informed in that violent first scene and thereafter reminded in the previously-ons. But in the meantime, Reasonable Doubt serves up plenty of the juicy thrills and emotional dilemmas that wine-soaked group chats were made for.
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