Franklin & Bash

Franklin & Bash debuts tonight on TNT at 9 p.m. Eastern.

Franklin & Bash, but for a couple of issues, is average. There’s nothing here you haven’t seen before. You’ve often seen it done better; you’ve occasionally seen it done worse. But it’s certainly a legal drama executed in completely by-the-numbers fashion, as though someone inside the TNT drama programming behemoth got hold of an unassembled CBS legal drama but couldn’t quite make sense of the attached instructions. Were it not for tone, this show would pretty much skate right down the middle, forgettable but not exactly offensive enough to work up a good hate for.

The problem, then, comes from the tone. Franklin & Bash is average, yes, but it’s aggressively average. It’s like that scene in the classic Simpsons episode “Itchy And Scratchy And Poochie” where the network executives talk about how extreme and proactive Poochie should be if it were extended to a series. Another show might have a moment where Franklin (or Bash, I guess) would happen upon a moment in court where he realized what he had to do to win the case, and the music would subtly swell, and then he’d give a heartfelt summation about the meaning of the law or something. It would be hackneyed and cliché, but, again, it would be hard to really hate. 

But, no. Franklin & Bash never sees a normal scene like that and says, “OK, good enough.” It layers on electric guitar riffs on the soundtrack, over-the-top circus antics, lots and lots of shots aimed solely at objectifying women (as creepily as possible), and the characters making absurd, inappropriate, out-of-nowhere pop culture gags. (Franklin and Bash are supposed to be pop culture fiends, but this only comes up when it’s convenient to the plot; like everything else in the show, the movie and TV gags don’t feel endemic to the world the writers are building but, instead, feel like something the network insisted upon.)

Franklin (Breckin Meyer) and Bash (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) are two seat-of-their-pants lawyers, making a living ambulance chasing in Los Angeles. The pilot goes to great lengths to establish just how scrappy they are and just how big of underdogs (they can’t pay their staff!) before immediately throwing nearly every bit of this exposition out in favor of whatever else it can think of. Because, see, Franklin and Bash win a court case that astounds veteran lawyer Infeld (Malcolm McDowell, playing yet another fill-in-the-blank with a heart of gold), and he invites them to come and work at his high-powered firm, rather than continue scrapping along. There, they’ll have a chance to change the corporate culture and do whatever it takes to win cases, as this is television, and “whatever it takes” is far more interesting than filing an endless series of briefs.

The problem comes from the fact that the pilot sets up a huge number of potential conflicts for the series, only to resolve all but one in the course of the initial hour. Will Franklin and Bash lose their souls at the new firm? We learn the answer to this question. Will their agoraphobic assistant Pindi (Kumail Nanjiani) ever leave the offices/apartments of Franklin and Bash? We also learn this. Will Bash win back his former flame? It’s not immediately clear at the end of the pilot, but you’ve seen television before. And on and on and on. The pilot takes what might have been a mildly interesting arc for a legal drama—can two outsider lawyers join a big firm without losing their souls?—and essentially resolves it, along with a bunch of other mini-arcs. And it’s hard to care about any of it because the storytelling in the pilot is so haphazard and poorly motivated. (McDowell basically drops by to deliver reams of exposition the characters would already be aware of, simply because the writers can’t think of any better way to convey this information.)

After the pilot, the show settles in for the long haul by mostly telling the sorts of legal drama stories you’ve seen a million times before, only not exceptionally well. The sorts of crazy strategies Franklin and Bash employ to win cases often feel as if they’ve dropped in from nowhere, and the standalone stories plod along relentlessly, rarely finding a fun twist or new idea. Occasionally, the show will come up with a fun guest star, like Jason Alexander, who pops up as a potentially evil CEO who may have turned over a new leaf in a July episode, but the series always triumphs over anyone trying to have any fun. The only kind of fun you’re going to have in this show is the aggressively prepackaged smarm that the show seems to inject directly into your cerebral cortex. (Other guest stars of note include James VanDerBeek, who seems to be having a lot of fun; Mircea Monroe; Natalie Zea; and Fred Willard.)

All of this might even be vaguely palatable (yes, even the terrible storytelling) if a single character here were worth following. It’s impossible to explain just what separates Franklin from Bash, for example. They just seem to be two equally frat boy-ish lawyers abruptly dropped into the middle of a big firm. The characters will say that Franklin comes from a long-established law family, but absolutely nothing about that information seems to inform his character. The same goes for Bash’s apparently long-held torch for his ex. These are just character quirks added on when convenient. And everybody else in the cast breaks down along good-evil lines, without any nuance to their characters. Reed Diamond turns up as a guy that is one snickering dog away from turning into a Hanna-Barbera villain, so devoid of nuance is his character. (If they added the snickering dog, I’d bump the grade up at least a point.)

Even worse, the show is infected with a terribly icky sense that all of its female characters are a pair of tits with legs. The first shot of the show is a model in bra cavorting on a bed, followed by a pan down to follow two attractive blondes in short skirts across the street to where Franklin and Bash are seated in a diner. There’s no good reason for the camera to follow them, just as there’s no good reason to dress nearly every woman in the show—including high-powered lawyers—like a hooker. (The bra-clad model, at least, is a plot point.) There’s something horribly crass about Franklin & Bash, as though it thinks it can distract you from just how rote it is by giving you everything it thinks you want. It has absolutely no respect for you.

Obviously, the kinds of shows TNT makes (just like the kinds of shows USA makes) aren’t intended to be heavy-thinking TV dramas, like Game Of Thrones or Breaking Bad. They’re primarily intended to give you a little comfort food for your brain at the end of a hard day. And that’s a fine aim. That’s even an occasionally noble aim. But what TNT, especially, has forgotten is that you even need to take chances when you’re making comfort food. If you eat Kraft macaroni and cheese every night, you’ll eventually get sick of it. Sooner or later, you need to break out the Hamburger Helper. What TNT, which is coming off a long string of absolutely lousy shows (though they have a good one coming up later in the month), needs is to move a little farther down the boxed dinner aisle and take a chance on something—anything—else.