Review by Elizabeth C. Bunce

NBC’s new John Grisham-inspired series The Firm premiered this week with a two-hour special (it moves to its regular night and time this Thursday at 8 pm).  To some, the original film adaptation starring Tom Cruise and Holly Hunter (et al) might still feel startlingly recent, certainly not a candidate for a remake already–but surprisingly, it’s been 20 years, so the timing actually seems right for a TV version.  Evidently the show’s producers had that same sense, however, for they make it clear this is a “New Chapter” of the story, occurring ten years after the events of the novel/film.

Starring Josh Lucas (A Beautiful Mind, Poseidon, Hulk), Molly Parker (Dexter, Deadwood), Tricia Helfer (Battlestar Galactica, Burn Notice), Juliet Lewis (Natural Born Killers, Cape Fear), and Callum Keith Rennie (Battlestar Galactica, 24), the first episode starts with a bang, dropping hero Mitch McDeere–and us–into a frantic foot chase across the Washington, D.C. Mall.  The chase is intriguing, if a pale shadow of Tom Cruise’s flight through a Memphis cotton-processing district, and it’s unclear whether McDeere is being pursued by criminals or cops, which adds a nice element of suspense.  He eludes his captors–so he believes–to confront a paranoid witness in a hotel room, who insists he can’t help McDeere, and to stress that point, flings himself off his hotel balcony.

Flash back six weeks, to learn McDeere and wife Abby have recently left the aegis of the Witness Protection Program they entered after the brilliantly-executed Get Out of Jail Free plan at the end of the original apparently failed spectacularly (i.e. the mob is after them).  It’s a little bit of a misstep, I think, as there was such cleverness and confidence in the climax to The Firm, that to immediately be told, “Oh, well, it didn’t work,” is fairly disappointing.  We’d like to see more of that slyness and charm, which Cruise pulled off so well, replicated here.

Which brings me to my thoughts on the pilot as a whole.  Instead of the intrigue-driven legal thriller of the novel and original film, the TV series appears to be shaping up as a fairly ho-hum courtroom drama.  The bulk of the two hours are spent on McDeere’s pro bono legal defense of a young boy charged with murdering a classmate.  It’s all very heartrending (so they hope), but ultimately not what this viewer, at least, tuned in for.  Balancing that is the subplot of McDeere being wooed by a local law firm, headed up by Tricia Helfer, looking to add a criminal defense division to their company.  It’s immediately obvious that McDeere will accept (witness the show’s title and entire premise), although the terms he demands are sort of interesting.

Performances are… OK.  I enjoyed watching Lucas, but although I’ve never been a particular fan of Tom Cruise, there is something missing from the performance here (or the script; it remains to be seen).  Abby McDeere, played here by Molly Parker, is cast in the role of smart, involved partner–she’s still a schoolteacher, but she is completely abreast of her husband’s work issues… all of which makes total sense, given the backstory presented us, and which is a refreshing addition to the story.  It’s nice to see the female lead with a head on her shoulders and a firm grasp of the full picture. (Their daughter, on the other hand, was an annoying distraction.)

Adding to the cast are Juliette Lewis, in the role Holly Hunter played in the original film, and Callum Keith Rennie, playing McDeere’s ex-con brother-slash-private-investigator.  This was a clever move on the part of the TV series, I think–they’ve combined two characters from the original (the ex-con brother and the hard-drinking P.I.) into one here, which works out very well, and was probably the part of the show I personally found most interesting.

Still, despite decent scriptwriting and casting, the verdict is still out on this new series.  I’m not sure I really care about a straightforward courtroom drama, and they’ll need to up the stakes and genre intrigue to keep me tuning in.  Likewise, it is really difficult to foresee how they’ll manage to build an entire season–let alone a whole series–from the events of six weeks.  What is the future here?  I’ll give it a few more episodes, but I’m not promising to stick it out.