I've given USA Network a little bit of grief for sticking so closely to its formulas the past. But when it comes to "Fairly Legal" (Friday, 9 p.m. ET), I have to admit, I wish the show followed the network's mandates a little more closely.
I watch "Psych" not because the show is reinventing the procedural detective genre, but because I enjoy Gus and Shawn's co-dependent silliness. I watch "Burn Notice" because I want to see Fiona, Michael and Sam defeat bad guys as a team, and because I enjoy seeing how those core relationships evolve. The best thing about "White Collar" is not just its style and intelligence, but the way that the show keeps adding nuances and tension to the complicated bond between its law-enforcement guy and its slick con man. All those shows have entertaining supporting characters, but the main draws with USA programs are not just the sparky pace and tone, but the relationships at the very center of the show.
And this is where, despite having changed showrunners between seasons, "Fairly Legal" goes terribly wrong. Its lead character, mediator Kate Reed (Sarah Shahi), isn't all that interesting on her own, but the people around her are either annoying or boring, and it's hard to care what happens in her personal or professional relationships.
There's also the small problem of the show's story engine, which just doesn't have much gas. Kate's job is to mediate between parties in legal disputes, and the goal is to avoid a courtroom spat (Kate most definitely does not like lawyers, despite having married a prominent one). Episodes generally follow a pretty predictable path: Kate finds out what clients need emotionally and figures out how they can resolve their baggage, then engineers a solution. So it's hard to get invested when you know the result will always be "everyone ends up more or less happy-ish."
But again, Gus and Shawn solve almost every case and the "Burn Notice" crew typically takes out their enemies. USA shows are successful because they have a generally positive dynamic and they create engaging tension without being heavy or dour (TNT and USA are proof there is a lot of money to be made in the cable realm when your shows don't make the audience experience existential doubt).
So it's not as if I have the world's highest expectations for "Fairly Legal," but it just doesn't deliver on a character level, and allegedly that is something that matters to the "Characters Welcome" network. Shahi does her level best with a blandly written role, but there's just not much to Kate, nor are her work and personal dilemmas compelling. The reliably good Michael Trucco, who plays her almost ex-husband, is stranded in an almost completely separate and uninteresting story, and Kate's tense relationship with her stepmother, Lauren Reed (Virginia Williams), is similarly spark-free and predictable.
I'd like to give the show some credit for switching things up in its second season by adding another love interest for Kate, lawyer Ben Grogan (Ryan Johnson); but the character is obnoxious, annoying and actively detracts from every scene he's in. If the show is trying to go for some kind of rom-com love-hate relationship between Kate and Ben, it fizzles because the writing is way over the top and there's no chemistry between the actors.
I fully realize that not every USA show is going to be in my wheelhouse -- "Royal Pains" has never clicked with me, for example -- but this is a case of a show just not working on both a structural and emotional level. It's just one of quite a few "Fairly Legal" problems, but the most memorable thing about Kate Reed should not be the sky-high heels she wears in every scene.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Lauren Reed is Kate's mother-in-law, not her stepmother.