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WashingTelevision: The Firm Recap, Pilot, “It’s Good To Be Free”

The John Grisham novel gets an update in NBC’s new Thursday primetime drama.

Josh Lucas as Mitch McDeere in NBC’s The Firm. Photograph by Steve Wilkie/NBC.

Was it just three weeks ago that we were saying goodbye to Homeland? It feels like it’s been an eternity since we had a fake Washington, DC, to pick apart on television. Luckily, NBC has now given us The Firm, which debuted last night in a two-hour pilot (it’ll regularly air at 10 PM on Thursdays). The last time audiences saw legal eagle Mitch McDeere, he was settling in for a long journey up north in an old station wagon, having managed to strike a deal with both the FBI and the Chicago mob that left him poor but happy, law license intact. (He also looked a lot like Tom Cruise.) Now, ten years later, he’s running through the reflecting pool ( Forrest Gump flashbacks!) clutching a briefcase, desperately looking for the last remaining payphone in Washington (presumably because 1993 called and it wants its technology back).

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The opening sequence of last night’s episode featured Mitch (now played by handsome Sweet Home Alabama alum Josh Lucas) running away from some Very Bad Men. He jostles past some tourists at the Lincoln Memorial, dropping his briefcase and losing precious seconds, but is luckily able to regain them by taking a short cut through the reflecting pool. The bad guys, wary of the potential dry cleaning bill, run around it but aren’t able to catch him as he vaults into the back of a pickup truck. Moments later, we see him calling his wife, Abby (Molly Parker). “Code red,” he tells her. “Follow the emergency plan. . . . It’s happening again.”

Mitch heads to the Parkview Hotel, where he greets an utterly suspicious-looking man, Martin, who is in no way pleased to see him. Apparently, a woman is dead, and Martin works for a company that knows something about it. Mitch offers to protect him—he has friends in the FBI, you know—but Martin’s having none of it. “I’ve done things. Horrible things,” he tells Mitch. “And I’ve tried to live with them. But I can’t anymore.” Before we know it, there’s a banging at the door, and Martin takes a high dive off the hotel balcony, ending up splattered all over the concrete. Mitch, understandably shocked by this, looks down, and then at the door, which is just about to break apart.

Cut to six weeks earlier: Mitch is wishing his daughter a happy tenth birthday with a pancake breakfast, only she wanted real cake, and she isn’t impressed. (“If this isn’t a courtroom, how come I ended up getting screwed on a technicality?”) Mitch and his wife discuss his six-month-old law practice, which is hemorrhaging money, since Mitch is one of those nice-guy lawyers who insists on doing pro bono cases and not hustling his poor clients for money. Leaving for work, he encounters an FBI agent outside, through whom we get the back story: Ten years ago, after Mitch and Abby thought all was well with the world after escaping the clutches of The Firm, an assassination attempt was made on Mitch’s life, forcing the family into witness protection. Now, with the head of the Morolto mob finally dead, the McDeeres have left witness protection and come to Washington in search of a new start. Only as the FBI guy tells Mitch, things aren’t that simple. Joey Morolto’s son, Joey Jr., just turned 25 and is stepping into his father’s shoes.

Mitch finally gets to the office where he greets his secretary, Tammy (Juliette Lewis, played by Holly Hunter in the movie), who’s a composite of every slutty secretary/hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold character in Hollywood history. Also working for the practice as a private investigator is Ray (Callum Keith Rennie), Mitch’s brother and Tammy’s long-time boyfriend, whom Mitch got out of jail in a deal with the FBI ten years ago. The three are working together on a number of cases, including a tort lawsuit against a company whose faulty cardiac stent grievously injured a client. Mitch also has a new client, Sarah, who’s just been accused of murder; conveniently enough, she’s an innocent-looking redhead who’s insisting she didn’t do it.

Over at the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, Mitch has been summoned by a judge, who wants to assign him another pro bono case. Mitch is dubious (those charity cases don’t pay the bills, your honor), but he’s swayed when he meets his new client—a 14-year-old kid accused of murder. The kid, an eighth grader named Donnell, stabbed one of his classmates, Nathan, to death in a playground brawl, but he seems way too shocked by what he’s done to be a cold-blooded killer. “He had a knife,” Donnell says. “I didn’t want to, but he made me do it.” Mitch meets with the kid’s dad and tells him the first hurdle in his defense: The prosecutor will attempt to try Donnell as an adult, which means he’ll be punished instead of rehabilitated.

Then Mitch lunches with a sleazy lawyer type who tries to get him to join his practice, Kinross & Clark, and Ray heads over to Donnell’s school looking for clues. He spots a gang tattoo on a security guard’s hand, and buddies up with him sufficiently that the guard tells him what really happened: Donnell was the one with the knife, and he was fighting with another kid, Tommy, when Nathan intervened, getting a knife in the neck in the process. And while Donnell has a history of causing trouble, Nathan was an all-around stellar paragon, loved by teachers and classmates alike. Mitch goes back to Donnell and confronts him with the truth, and Donnell’s response is cold. “That kid was supposed to be smart,” he tells Mitch. “Look how smart he was.”

The next day in court, Tommy takes the stand, and Mitch knows that in order to defend his client, he has to crucify a 14-year-old. He does so, speculating that Donnell might have been innocent and Nathan might have started the fight (Nathan’s parents, who are sitting in court, aren’t thrilled about this). After the judge calls a recess in order to decide whether Donnell should be tried as a child or an adult, Nathan’s mother confronts Mitch, saying, “Shame on you, Mr. McDeere. What if it was your child?”

Mitch’s child, Claire (Natasha Calis), is actually at home celebrating her birthday, and she’s thrilled because all her classmates came. (We’re starting to get the idea that she’s a little traumatized from years of moving around the country, and naturally now that she’s settled in, it’s only a matter of time before the family’s forced to leave again.) Walking outside, Mitch notices a car parked by his house, which drives away when he moves towards it. Later he talks to Abby about the Kinross & Clark offer, and how he’s tempted by the opportunity to be part of a firm again. “I’m the son of a coal miner and a waitress,” he tells her. But Abby is skeptical. “Mitch, you’re not built for those firms,” she tells him. Plus things turned out so peachy the last time the McDeeres got in with a bunch of fancy lawyers.

Suddenly, Mitch gets a phone call, and he’s summoned back to the office by Ray and Tammy. Sitting at his desk is a burly construction worker, who tells him Nathan Williams’s dad has offered him $10,000 to kill Donnell. Despite (because of?) the fact that he’s the most eloquent construction worker in history, he came to Ray first instead of accepting the offer. Mitch decides to see how serious Nathan’s father is, sending Ray in disguise as a contract killer who’s happy to take the gig. Mitch, Ray, Tammy, and Abby all discuss the case at home, but they’re interrupted by Claire, who grows hysterical when she senses there’s trouble brewing. “You cannot do this to me again!” she cries. Mitch calms her down, telling her the family is in Washington for good (famous last words).

Ray goes to his meeting with Nathan’s father in a diner in the guise of a hitman, and attempts gently to talk him out of it. But Mr. Williams is adamant—and he wants the murder done with a knife. “You kill him the same way he killed Nathan,” he says. Ray, who’s wearing a wire, gets the whole thing on tape. Abby tells Mitch that he absolutely has to go to the police, but Mitch isn’t so sure. If he does, Nathan’s dad will go to jail, and the already grief-stricken family will be wounded even further.

Mitch and Abby attend a fancy reception at Kinross & Clark, where they meet Mitch’s prospective new boss: a knockout of a lawyer named Alex (Tricia Helfer). Abby looks a little unnerved by the Amazonian attorney, but she and Mitch get to work anyway, schmoozing with the firm’s lawyers. One of them, who’s clearly an utter d-bag, bristles at Mitch’s declaration that he did some tax work for a while but it wasn’t his thing (inside Grisham joke!), and implies that Mitch would rather defend criminals for a living. Cue preachy law moment. “We both defend criminals,” Mitch says. “Difference is, I’ll admit it to anyone. You won’t even admit it to yourself.” As he and Abby leave the party, Mitch describes the firm as a “bunch of control freaks and tax-fraud artists,” and seems happier than ever that he’s out on his own.

Cut to Chicago, where a young man is begging a fellow student on campus to have dinner with him. “Why do I get the feeling you’re not a typical night student?” she asks him. Because he’s Joey Morolto Jr., that’s why—and he comes with a security escort (hint to anyone considering dating someone with a security guard: If he’s not Justin Bieber, don’t do it). Despite the fact that Joey’s told his goons a million times that he doesn’t want any business while he’s at school, they summon him over and tell him that they’ve found Mitch McDeere, the man who’s responsible for his father dying in jail. And it may just be payback time.

Over at the office, Mitch is still trying to decide what to do with the tape of Nathan’s father. Tammy announces the arrival of a lawyer who’s come to discuss the Sanderson case—the client of Mitch’s whose faulty cardiac stent left her permanently hospitalized. The group thinks he’s coming to settle, but it turns out a new, vastly superior law firm has taken over the case on behalf of DC Tech, who made the stent, and they have no intent of settling. Instead, he offers Mitch $800 in cash (a paltry sum, I think we’ll all agree) to make the case go away, plus a briefcase full of attitude. “I’ll fight you on this,” Mitch says. “No,” the arrogant lawyer replies, “I don’t think you will.” After the lawyer leaves, Mitch weighs his options. “I want to grind these smug sons of bitches into ground glass,” he tells Tammy, in what may be one of the worst lines of 2012. But in order to do that, he needs the support of an equally important law firm behind him.

So he heads back to Kinross & Clark and plays hardball (not really) with his bitchy new boss. “We project an image here, Mitch,” Alex tells him, meaning that if he wants to join her firm, he can’t keep his tatty office with linoleum floors and hooker-esque secretaries. So he offers her a deal: He’ll join the firm to head up its criminal defense division, and he’ll conduct meetings in her absurdly fancy office to keep up appearances, but he’ll keep his storefront digs. He’ll also give her 50 percent of everything he makes, which right now, doesn’t seem to be all that much. They make a deal, annnnnd Mitch McDeere is part of a snotty law firm again. Look out, mafiosi!

The next day, Ray meets with Mr. Williams again, who hands over the promised ten grand. Ray pushes the money back, and Mitch arrives, exuding moral sanctimony from every pore. “What was I supposed to do?” the dad asks. “The judge just let that boy go home!” But he conspired to commit murder, Mitch tells him, which could mean 25 years in jail—25 years away from his wife, who already struggles to get out of bed every morning, and his daughter, whom he should have thought about. “I did this because they’re all I think about,” Mr. Williams tells him.

Over at the superior court, the judge is issuing his decision on whether to try Donnell as a child or an adult. “This was a shocking crime,” the judge says. “I don’t know how to value Donnell Haywood’s life without devaluing Nathan Williams’s death. But I’ve made my decision, and it is one of hope. Hope that Donnell Haywood will once be the man your son already was.” He declares that Donnell will be tried as a child, meaning he’ll receive around five years in the juvenile system. Mitch walks over to the prosecutor, Diana, who thinks he’s there to gloat, but instead he tells her he needs her help. The pair summon Richard Williams and ask him to sign a confession detailing how he tried to have Donnell murdered. Mr. Williams is aghast, but then Diana tells him she’ll file the confession in her bottom drawer, as long as he meets with her once a week so she can make sure he’ll never try anything like this again.

Mitch heads back to his office, where Tammy and Ray are slightly perturbed that he agreed to join a law firm without, you know, telling them or anything. “It’s just an association,” he tells them, before going to the hospital to visit Mrs. Sanderson, the client with the faulty cardiac stent. He greets her daughter, who tells him that she’s still fighting. “So are we,” Mitch responds. Later, he and Abby attend Nathan’s funeral, where they’re unknowingly targeted by a photographer.

Andrew, the lawyer who originally enticed Mitch into Kinross & Clark, signs his name on a few top-secret documents before attending a late-night meeting with Alex and a bunch of other lawyers. Alex announces the firm’s new partner, Mitch McDeere, and the other lawyers ask if he knows why they hired him. “No,” she replies, stating that he thinks it’s because of their interest in the Sanderson case. “Of course, our real interest in him hasn’t changed,” she says. That interest? Sarah, the pretty redhead who was arrested for murder, and whom Mitch was randomly assigned to defend. Now that he’s on board, the firm is initiating surveillance on him, in addition to bugging his phones and computers (sound familiar?). “Let’s be perfectly clear,” Alex says. “If Mitch McDeere ever finds out the truth in this case, everyone in this room is going to prison.” In walks Alex’s client, who’s somehow associated with the case, and guess what? He’s Martin, the man who jumped off the balcony at the beginning of the episode. Cut to Mitch standing on the balcony as the door gets bashed in.

So what can we make of the series so far? First, that the show is trying so hard to emphasize what a good guy Mitch is that he ends up coming off as a little two-dimensional. “Ground glass”? Here’s hoping that Mitch gets a bit more charismatic as the season progresses. And here’s also hoping that Juliette Lewis gets more to do beyond bitching about cigarettes and her sex life.

Best insider nod of the episode: “We were a little scarred by our last firm experience,” says Mitch at the Kinross mixer.

Most un-Washington moment: Impoverished lawyers live in $5 million houses? Mmkay.

And finally, the award for overegging the cake goes to the judge, who commendably delivered the following line without laughing: “So shines a good deed in a weary world.”

Apart from wanting to slap Mitch around the ear for being so naive as to get in bed with a crooked law firm again, I mostly enjoyed this episode. It combined a lot of the legal intrigue of Law & Order with the character-driven drama of the best TV shows, even if the pilot crammed so much action and catching up into two hours that the actors didn’t have all that much to work with. Grisham’s stamp is obvious in the long chase scenes and moral overtones, so here’s hoping we have a thrilling season ahead of us once everyone settles into their roles a bit better.

What did you think of last night’s episode of The Firm? Let us know in the comments.