Canterbury’s Law was The Good Wife before The Good Wife

Canterbury’s Law was The Good Wife before The Good Wife

Some TV shows never even make it past the first season. Maybe a series lacked the ratings to match its artistic accomplishments, or maybe it floundered its way into the network crosshairs, but it’s time to look at one-season series outside the immediate context of ratings and renewals. One-Season Wonders, Weirdos, And Wannabes considers the merits of these short-lived shows.

In hindsight, Canterbury’s Law is a weird footnote in Julianna Margulies’ repertoire from that Mists Of Avalon period from 2000 to 2009 where she tried to find a place for herself in Hollywood that wasn’t as ER’s troubled nurse Carol Hathaway. For such a talented actress—one whose on-screen romance with George Clooney launched him from working actor to superstar—she had a lot of trouble finding a niche. Margulies’ search led her into the murky waters of made-for-TV miniseries, guest stints on The Sopranos and Scrubs, and, of course, a starring role in Snakes On A Plane.

These roles have nothing in common—except that none of them test Margulies’ considerable talents. In The Sopranos she plays Julianna Skiff, a realtor who is revealed to be a troubled addict, but the story is less interested in her than it is in how Tony Soprano and Christopher Moltisanti play off of her. In The Mists Of Avalon she’s Morgaine, a sympathetic revision of Morgan Le Fay that puts Margulies in period dresses and Celtic braids. In Snakes On A Plane, she’s… a flight attendant.

It wasn’t until 2009 that she found another show that could speak to her strengths—CBS’ The Good Wife, a legal procedural with a distinctive storytelling style. It’s hard to imagine another show better suited to Margulies’ particular cocktail of abilities. In all of the roles she played between ER and The Good Wife there’s intimation that there is more to her characters than meets the eye, but none of these parts after ER found a way to tap Margulies’ depth as an actress.

What they did do, though, is switch out her scrubs for suits. The contrast between Margulies’ buttoned-up exterior and the rich emotional life she was able to convey with subtlety is best illustrated with suits and uniforms, somehow. On ER, Nurse Hathaway was a bit more apt to fly off the handle. But by the time she gets to The Sopranos she’s wearing a tailored skirt and suit, which Tony eagerly rips off of her; even in Scrubs, which might have been a nod to her medical past, she plays a well-dressed attorney.

Then, in 2008, Canterbury’s Law debuted as a midseason replacement, with Margulies as the lead character. By the time she got to Canterbury’s Law, Julianna Margulies had established herself as an excellent procedural actress who could emote even through shoulder pads and double-breasted blazers. It was a natural choice to make her a passionate lawyer—her look immediately suggested both poise and emotional complexity, and her acting range offered any show that cast her the ability to press many different stories on her without having her collapse. (Though the following trailer is in Turkish, the footage is more or less the opening credits of the show, which openly fetishizes the suits, tights, and high heels Margulies is wearing.)

Canterbury’s Law is a lesson in fantastic casting and flawed characterization; a show that found the perfect actress to play a lawyer with a troubled past, but couldn’t create a story that allowed her to shine. Her time on Canterbury’s Law should have been a match made in heaven, but it wasn’t, quite. Its flaws weren’t the only reason it got canceled—the writers’ strike of 2007-2008 impeded production, and Fox lost faith in it after a lackluster debut, yanked it from the Monday schedule, and exiled it to Friday nights, which was a death sentence for the show.

But the series wouldn’t have been long for this world, anyway. Canterbury’s Law was straddling a few old methods of storytelling and a few new ones, and it couldn’t quite make it all come together for a memorable run. In hindsight, it is little more than a runway for Margulies, from a lead role as an attorney in a show that never found its voice, to a lead role in a show that was, figuratively, belting from the rooftops. It’s fascinating now as a six-episode-long audition reel for the actress, who must have impressed Robert and Michelle King, showrunners of The Good Wife, and their casting agent, Mark Saks. It’s televisual déjà-vu—the same woman navigates life as a high-powered attorney, a mother, a wife, and a human with feelings. But in the vast differences between the shows, Canterbury’s Law also proves to be a case study in subtleties—or, to be precise, the lack thereof.

In Canterbury’s Law, Margulies plays the improbably named Elizabeth Canterbury, a defense attorney with a troubled marriage. Very little about the initial sketch of this character is not cliché: The show indicates “badass bitch” by dressing her in leather and putting her in a vintage Porsche, where she is shown shifting gears with a dedicated passion that she presumably also brings to her ruthless practice. She is the head of her own firm, a criminal-defense practice that regularly runs awry of the district attorney’s office in Providence, Rhode Island.

Though she is whip-smart and wise-cracking, Canterbury has a lot of grief, too. As is disclosed in the opening shots of the pilot, she’s cheating on her husband; and by the end of the episode, it’s revealed that the Canterburys’ young son was kidnapped three years before and was never found. This trauma—and her own guilt—has driven Elizabeth to the kind of alcoholism that looks good on television. It also explains her erraticism. There are moments in the show where her character veers toward hyperbole, but Margulies usually manages to sell it as the pain lurking beneath Elizabeth’s tough exterior.

Although Margulies is able to pull this off somewhat, Elizabeth Canterbury is not a great character to pin a whole series on. She’s almost entirely image, without much substance, and the six episodes available don’t make it a point to deconstruct the leather-and-pantyhose image. She’s certainly flawed and complex, but the show is noticeably fond of her freewheeling ways.

In that way, it has a lot in common with Rescue Me—with which it shared two producers, Denis Leary and Jim Serpico, who took on this project while Rescue Me was on a hiatus in 2008. There’s an attitude of reckless, despairing abandonment that seems to be exploited just for television’s sake, and while Rescue Me did a lot to deconstruct its characters, Canterbury’s Law didn’t get enough time. The result is that she is just skimming through life— juggling affairs, grief, mourning, work, and vodka. And so the viewer skims over Canterbury, too. If she won’t take her life seriously, why should the audience?

That entirely unoriginal passion to “do good” hamstrings the character as well. It’s at odds with the unexamined tragedy at the center of her life—Rescue Me’s Tommy Gavin didn’t adulterate his grief with any type of idealism. Elizabeth is less demonstrably a good person yet more described as a good person. More than a little, she resembles Scandal’s Olivia Pope—both wield a less-than-white-hat mentality that has both women relying heavily on their “gut” for their moral choices. (Her loyal and frustrated crew is also similar to Olivia’s—Chester, played by Keith Robinson, and Molly played by Trieste Kelly Dunn, are Elizabeth’s version of Harrison and Abby.) A tagline from one of Fox’s promos even indicates that Canterbury “only crosses the line for her clients,” which is a line that could appear in any of ABC’s promos for Scandal.

But the result for the Fox show is a splashy mess. For a legal show, there is a surprising amount of random violence—in the pilot, a witness on the stand punches Canterbury in the face while she’s questioning him in court. And for characters we’ve only just met, there’s a sudden and swift booze-fueled marital meltdown in the third episode, “What Goes Around,” that is the stuff of legend. It’s not bad, but it is heavily overwritten—as if the writers have amended each line of dialogue with the stage direction “(dysfunctionally).” This was Dave Erickson’s first (and thus far, only) credit as show creator, and his follow-up

résumé does not inspire much hope in hindsight: In addition to his consulting work on Sons Of Anarchy, his most recent project was AMC’s disappointing Low Winter Sun. (He also wrote, incidentally, the 2004 made for TV movie The Perfect Husband: The Laci Peterson Story, starring Dean Cain.) It’s possible to see the same missteps that have plagued those two shows represented here: a good idea laid low by bad, derivative characterization.

Canterbury’s Law lacks The Good Wife’s delicacy and nuance; where Canterbury’s Law is flashy, its successor is usually cool and dry. Canterbury’s Law uses pretty traditional filming methods, while The Good Wife has set itself apart as innovating even with its cinematography and score. There is no real precursor to The Good Wife; it’s not like much else on TV.

Given all of that, it is absolutely uncanny how Canterbury’s Law stumbled upon a formula for success and then more or less flubbed the delivery. Not only did the series anticipate how successful Margulies would be in a lead role as an attorney, but it also anticipated some storytelling devices that The Good Wife still leans on: Both shows, for example, made the smart decision to set the show away from typical shooting grounds, and in a city with a history of corruption. The Good Wife chooses Chicago, yet rather laughably doesn’t film there, while Canterbury’s Law made rich and very accurate use of Providence.

And, most crucially, both shows gave Margulies different material to work with. Both Alicia and Elizabeth are formidable attorneys; both are prone to bursts of passion concerning their children. Both are having trouble in their marriages. Both, eventually, cheat on their spouses with someone at work. Yet while Elizabeth Canterbury is entirely about the illusion of power—as the show, indeed, is invested in the power of that illusion—The Good Wife is far more interested in the quiet reach of real assertion. Alicia Florrick doesn’t drive a Porsche to work; she doesn’t have to, because Julianna Margulies conveys Alicia’s power just by the way she walks into a room.

Canterbury’s Law had a short life. The series’ six episodes get through about an arc and a half of narrative; after the establishing case of the pilot, the show appears to move on to a new case—in the well-worn path of any number of other legal procedurals, which usually tackle a new case a week.

But in the series’ third episode, “What Goes Around,” Canterbury’s Law loops back around to the earlier case and drags a legal complication to light, making for another story arc about Elizabeth potentially being disbarred. It’s impressive storytelling that makes clever use of the long tail of legal cases—and does so without any foreshadowing, mimicking real-life blindsiding for the characters by blindsiding the viewers, too. That’s a legal storytelling device that its spiritual successor The Good Wife uses all the time. Unfortunately, no one really saw it the first time.

As wonderful as it is, that can be a risky device. Making the choice to not drop hints can convince viewers they’re not watching anything interesting, and for a freshman show, it’s asking a lot of viewers to watch these three episodes closely, and in order. In the case of Canterbury’s Law, which was pulled from its Monday timeslot and shuttled to a Friday slot after just two episodes, the audience—and the show—didn’t really have a chance. The ratings for “What Goes Around,” the first to air in the Friday timeslot, are significantly more dismal than even the very next Friday episode, “Sweet Sixteen.” Unfortunately, “What Goes Around” is the episode in which Canterbury’s Law begins to find its voice.

It would have been interesting to see what the show could do with seven more episodes—it could have matured. But the role of Elizabeth Canterbury was off-tone for its actress, right from the start—it wasted Margulies’ natural ability for subtlety and vulnerability. Instead of asking her to act, it put her in leather jackets. Now that Julianna Margulies is the Emmy-winning star of The Good Wife, it’s possible that the mark she’s made as a lawyer outshines that she made as a nurse. Clearly, not all lawyers are made alike. Canterbury’s Law is a curiosity, but one that made way for the classic.

One-season wonder, weirdo, or wannabe? Wannabe

Next time: Todd VanDerWerff looks at ’60s cult sitcom He & She.

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