USA Network’s motto in recent years has been “Characters Welcome,” and this mission statement has helped launch a string of high-quality and popular series, such as Burn Notice, Psych and White Collar, all filled with memorable characters. But the network’s new drama Fairly Legal may be the most character-driven of all. Although it can technically be called a legal drama, star Sarah Shahi (The L Word) tells us that it is an “unconventional” one — also describing it as “cheeky” and “flirty” — and the pilot episode bears her out that this is a refreshing take on the tried-and-true law series.
“I’m not sitting there spewing out legal jargon and [constantly in] courtroom scenes,” Shahi says. “This character purely functions on how she feels. A lot of the time she just leads with her heart, and her mind sometimes follows, sometimes doesn’t. So for me it was more important to get her heart and to understand her.”
Shahi’s character is Kate Reed, a former lawyer who became so frustrated with the bureaucracy and injustices she saw in the system that she decided to become an “anti-lawyer” — a mediator, a profession not often seen on television. If you’re not quite sure what a mediator is or does, you’re not alone.
“I didn’t know much about mediators,” says Shahi. “I actually don’t think I had heard about mediation.”
Basically, Kate uses her knowledge of the law, along with her savvy and whatever-it-takes approach to conflict resolution, to find a middle ground between adversaries ranging from Fortune 500 corporations to bitter divorcees. After the sudden death of her lawyer father, Kate finds herself at odds with his firm’s new boss — her stepmother (Virginia Williams), whom she privately calls the “Wicked Witch” (all of the people in Kate’s life have Wizard of Oz-associated nicknames on her cellphone, including her soon-to-be ex-husband Justin (Michael Trucco), who’s a top gun in the DA’s office, and her geek-chic assistant Leonardo, played by Baron Vaughn).
While Kate is very good at picking up on both sides of certain situations, she doesn’t always find it easy to do that in her personal life.
“She’s so flawed,” Shahi says. “She can fix everybody else but herself. And that’s something she struggles with in every episode.”
The mediations Kate finds herself in are interesting to see, but even more intriguing are the character dynamics. Everyone is flawed, and no one is painted as purely good or bad. This interplay will be evident in every episode, Shahi tells us.
“There is definitely a mediation in every episode, and Kate and her relationships with the other characters will be seen through the mediations … which is something I would hope to get away from,” Shahi laughingly admits. “Maybe next year, only because I think these characters are so rich in just themselves, I would love to not have the mediation, and, if anything, have it be just a purely sort of emotional character episode and see what happens.”
Interestingly, the title of the show itself used to be more character-driven, reflecting the show. The original title for the series was Facing Kate.
“At first, to be honest, I was a little upset [that they changed the title] because I really wanted to be the title character of a show,” says Shahi. “And that was pure ego. And then I had heard when they had their test audience, 80 percent of the people thought that it was a reality show about Kate Gosselin. So then I was more than happy that they changed the title. … I don’t want to be confused with Kate Gosselin at all.”
“Fairly Legal” airs Thursdays on USA Network starting Jan. 20.