Strict verisimilitude—let’s dispose of it at the beginning—is highly overrated. Real life may be stranger than fiction, but it’s also more boring. Way more. (That’s why even so-called “reality” shows have editors.) So it’s no criticism of NBC’s new drama series First Years to note that the five main characters all work as first-year associates at the same law firm in San Francisco, a city where starting salaries are now $165,000, yet four of them share an apartment. (The fifth lives in a low-rent district because she won’t live with friends, “only with men who steal her credit cards.”) That’s a combined income of $660,000. I don’t know about most people, but the first thing I did when I got my high-priced designer law job was to chuck the roommates and get a real apartment. Isn’t that the point of selling out? And while we’re being picky, no partner in his right mind would dump a motion for a temporary restraining order on two first-years, as happens in the second episode. In fact, though the show’s first-years complain about the misery of their jobs, the jobs seemed pretty cool to me: lots of client contact, lots of real litigation. The type of stuff they would never let you do in real law firms. (And they’d never let you dress that way, despite the new corporate casual.) In tone, in style, in character, in everything in fact, First Years seems to be more about first-year law students—or, closer still, first-year college students—than first-year lawyers. But all this dramatic license is a good thing. You also wouldn’t want to watch a TV show about first-year lawyers that depicts what they really do. The long boring silences. The hours spent in the library and the conference room. The lack of human interaction. We should be grateful to producer Jill Gordon (My So-Called Life, The Wonder Years) that she’s spared us the truth.
So what makes First Years so awful? Not the dialogue, which can actually be clever at times. (“At least you people have bars,” a cancer victim says to Warren, the gay first-year, explaining why cancer is worse than AIDS.) The problem is the way the show exploits the law as a tool for heavy-handed character exposition. This is especially obvious (and painful) in the first episode when Riley Kessler (the gorgeous Sydney Tamiia Poitier), a light-skinned African-American first-year (who, for no reason that I can see, is living with sideburned, grungy Edgar) goes home to see her parents after meeting with her client, a darker-skinned African-American woman. The client, in jail on felony murder charges, has given up her baby for adoption to a white couple. Now, because the parents are white, she wants the baby back. Riley kisses her dad hello and, in an oh-so-casual, by-the-way camera pan, walks through the kitchen where her mother, a very white, very blond woman is cooking dinner as her much lighter-skinned sister traipses through. Ta-da! Get it? This woman is conflicted! The law is personal! Boom! That sound you hear is the frying pan hitting you over the head.
There are far too many moments like this, and not enough moments of calculated insanity like the young lawyer who’s hired by the partner to insult him. The second episode, although it deals with an equally weighty subject—death—is much better because the dying character is quirky and not pathetic like the babyless client in the first episode. But you can still feel the producers’ need to use the law for disquisitions on weighty themes. After all, lawyers must be doing something important for all that money, right?
First Years desperately wants to occupy a middle ground between gravity and weightlessness, a position last spotted successfully by L.A. Law. But there’s both too much law, and not enough of it; legal themes are tacked to the characters’ backs like “kick me” signs in case we missed the point. It’s one thing to name your African-American character “Riley,” something else entirely to dump the weight of miscegenation upon her. No first-year should have to bear that burden, and neither should we.