It’s not surprising that Franklin & Bash was originally developed for TBS instead of TNT. Thinking back to the network slogans at the time, F&B doesn’t really fit under “We Know Drama,” but then again, it doesn’t fall under the umbrella of “Very Funny” either. The show is still frustratingly complacent with being a glossed up Perry Mason-esque legal procedural where every case gets solved in a courtroom, in the last five minutes, with a key witness buckling under cross-examination thanks to the guile of our intrepid heroes, Jared Franklin and Peter Bash. Everything is designed for the most twist-heavy setup, contrived so that around every predictable cutback, no matter how far on the ropes Franklin and Bash get, they can always come up with an elaborate ploy to save the case and make it look like they exerted no effort. After all, this is the show that cast Tommy Chong as a judge with a strict, no-nonsense policy on marijuana possession.
Right from the theme song, which sounds like Pearl Jam got eaten and then regurgitated by Nickelback, it’s clear that Franklin & Bash is stuck in some kind of frat-boy time warp. The titular duo is on the verge of cementing their place in the big time and becoming partners, so long as they land a big corporate client and prove they can bring business in for the firm. But they still get to pull off their trademark hijinks, like locking Franklin in a water tank in a Houdini-like fashion to get a manufacturer to admit his products are made in China, or putting on a gladiator costume and greasing up with sunscreen in order to prove that a defendant didn’t resist arrest. The cleverness is turned all the way to 11, with Meyer and Gosselaar doing everything but turning right to the camera and giving an exaggerated wink.
And the misogyny, oh the misogyny. Not an episode can go by without having Gosselaar turn on the smolder and demean some unassuming female character. Sometimes, it’s his ex-girlfriend Janie, played by Claire Coffee—now better known to me as Adalind Schade on Grimm—but other times, he’s seducing a female police officer by telling her she’s “too sexy to be a cop.” The peripheral characters, from the villainous partners Damien and Hanna, scheming to oust Franklin and Bash from the firm, to the research endeavors of Pindar and Carmen, only get as much screen time as the writers can find quips.
Malcolm McDowell keeps riding his career resurgence, getting a few moments each week to tell a story about his sexual past, which makes everyone else uncomfortable. He’s a leery combination of Betty White and Pierce on Community when he tells his Eartha Kitt stories, eliciting a few laughs but a far better character when he’s overseeing a case using his wit on cross examination. I used to like him as a truly villainous foil to Jeremy Piven on Entourage—just about the only thing that made sticking with that show possible—but after another, darker role on Heroes, he’s settled into the same laidback tone as his guest appearance on Psych this past season, genteel with a bite.
The only struggle left on the show is that Meyer and Gosselaar’s characters struggle with the David/Goliath feeling of being at a big law firm. They still want to help out the little guy—like a local brewery in tonight’s premiere—but they have to help toe the line in order to become partners. But they even find a way to work around that difficulty, when they withhold party time from a beer and spirits CEO played by Kevin Nealon seeking to countersue the little brewery out of business, and he rescinds the lawsuit to get them to accompany him to Vale. Literally nothing can go wrong for these guys. They get the money, the promotion, the power, and the girls, but they can still turn around and help out small businesses, framed judges, and even soldiers, without dealing in grisly murders every week like other, darker legal shows. It’s an incredibly skewed and privileged view of the legal system, especially in Los Angeles.
And yet…AND YET—I found myself laughing with reasonable frequency. Sometimes, the situations are just so unbelievably ridiculous and poorly plotted that the laughs aren’t at the material but at whoever contrived a certain scenario. Still, Gosselaar and Meyer look as though they’re having a tremendous amount of fun, hanging out, trading witty banter, and solving everything at the last second. McDowell is having just as much fun, but only because he can phone it in and still come off as the wily veteran with surprising sexual prowess.
Franklin & Bash doesn’t fall into the tried-and-true genre of legal dramas like Law & Order, JAG, or The Good Wife. It’s not even aiming to be another quality legal dramedy in the Ally McBeal vein, something that puts USA’s Suits a slight cut above this show. No, this is playing for a much broader audience, for the people who don’t want to be challenged or take risks in any way. When Franklin & Bash has a marathon on a weekend afternoon up against infomercials and lame movies, its ratings will be through the roof for people who can’t be troubled to switch to Netflix or go outside.
It isn’t about the personal lives of the lawyers, or about fighting for the little guy—no matter how many times Franklin and Bash make the David/Goliath comparison—it’s about using as much flair as possible in salvaging a witty win from the jaws of deafeat. It’s like watching the courtroom scene from Legally Blonde for an hour each week, and despite the unfiltered, gleeful fun, that gets exhausting.
- This is a premiere drop-in review, but TNT sent out four of the 10 episodes out on screeners (completely out of order). Upcoming cases have some decent guest stars, and some mildly offensive cases on gender equality and homosexuality. Cybill Shepherd gets a pretty nice guest role, and so do Rick Fox and Meyer’s Robot Chicken pal Seth Green.
- James Van Der Beek escaped back to network television on Apartment 23, so he’s no longer Janie’s fiancé. The character gets written off to an ashram in one sentence in a later episode.