(The Internet has made TV criticism more prominent, but the kinds of shows TV critics write about - serialized dramas and single-camera comedies - are rarely the kinds of shows that become popular with a mass audience. Every week, TV Club is going to drop in on one of the top-rated programs in the nation, one that we don't normally cover. What makes these shows popular? Should we be covering them more often? Are our preconceived notions about quality not necessarily following popularity justified, or are we jumping to conclusions? This week, Todd VanDerWerff drops in on the surprisingly popular (with the wrong audience) Harry's Law. Next week, adventures in demographics continues, as we examine how BET resurrected The Game and found huge ratings.)
Harry’s Law is the most-watched program on NBC. It might be canceled at the end of the season.
I realize this sounds ridiculous. Harry’s Law might have gotten terrible reviews—mine among them—when it debuted, but it’s clearly spoken to a certain portion of the audience. It debuted big—just over 11 million viewers—then hung on to a surprising number of those viewers. Last week’s episode drew 9.2 million. And it’s doing that with absolutely zero support from any other show on the network. Its lead-ins were perpetually low-rated Chuck and abysmally rated The Cape, and tonight, it got a boost from… the two hour return of The Event. With friends like these, as they say. This isn’t something where CBS is propping up its big, new hits by putting them after even bigger hits. Those are timeslot hits, supported by the other shows around them. No, this is the biggest out-of-the-box hit of the 2010-11 season, a show that people went out of their way to find and then kept watching. (This year’s cable equivalent would be The Walking Dead, a show fewer viewers found than Harry’s Law, but how many magazine covers has Kathy Bates popped up on?)
This puts me in a weird position. I hated Harry’s Law when it debuted, and I didn’t much like the episode I screened tonight (which I’ll get to in a moment). Yet I find myself arguing for the show’s renewal, because I hate advertisers’ increasing insistence on caring only about viewers between 18 and 49, the Nielsen ratings system for not figuring out a better way to count how people really watch television, and the networks for just standing by and going along with it, as though the eyeballs of every person in the country don’t matter one day after their 50th birthdays. Because, you see, Harry’s Law is popular almost exclusively because of old people. It’s always problematic to try to calculate viewership numbers from raw Nielsen data, but my poking at the numbers suggests that as little as a quarter and only as much as a third of the show’s viewership comes from the 18-49-year-old bracket.
There are better shows to take up this cause with, I’ll admit. The Good Wife is in a very similar boat, and that’s one of the four or five best dramas airing on TV right now. But it’s on CBS and in a time slot where lots of shows of interest to 18-49-year-olds already air, so it languishes, regardless of its quality, because the younger people who’d love it if they checked in don’t even know it exists. And I’ll also happily admit that this dynamic definitely benefits some shows I love. NBC’s Community and Parks And Recreation—two of my favorite shows on the air, period—are both immensely helped by their strong number of viewers within the “key demo” (and how I hate that I know how to use that term), even though their viewership numbers aren’t very good. Plus, this dynamic allows for something like adult swim—which draws a small but loyal audience of primarily young men—to exist, since it serves a demographic that advertisers desperately want but have a hard time finding. (Chasing demographics like that also allows for advertisers to find this Web site and pay my salary, so… thanks, advertisers!)
And, sure, part of my dislike of this change in how we count viewership stems from the fact that I miss the mass TV culture of my youth. The TV we have today is many miles better than what I had growing up in the ‘80s, but I also don’t know anyone in my real life who watches Breaking Bad with the level of passion I do now, whereas absolutely everybody in my third-grade class could discuss that week’s Cosby Show or Roseanne with some degree of knowledge. That line between 49 and 50 also seems to be the line between the last vestigial memory of the big three networks as a dominant force and a sense of TV as a vast smorgasbord. The older viewers who love Harry’s Law and CBS live in a world where the mass TV watching audience still exists and watches those shows (oh, and Dancing With The Stars). The rest of us live in a world where everybody watches American Idol and Modern Family, then goes off to their own passions the rest of the time.
But all of those caveats aside, it just feels wrong to me that a network would cancel its most watched show. Give or take a particularly highly viewed Biggest Loser episode, NBC can’t beat the numbers Harry’s Law draws entirely on its own, but those numbers are full of people who like this kind of formulaic, ‘90s TV drama pap, and those people tend to be old. Shouldn’t these people count, too? Even if they watch lots of TV and, thus, aren’t as hard to find? Even if advertisers continue to believe that they’re rigid and inflexible, having made their minds up on brand names long ago? (This is an image that CBS, at least, is attempting to change, beginning to argue that the aging of the Baby Boomers means that now the elderly are wild, swinging folks who will be happy to try out new brands of toothpaste, just like your average 20-year-old. We’ll see how successful they are at it.) What everybody’s scared to admit is the fact that if Nielsen doesn’t figure out a way to count all of the people who watch online or watch on DVR, people over 49 will soon be the only audience watching live TV in any significant numbers, and that means shows like Harry’s Law or The Good Wife might have to go.
Let me be clear: On a creative basis, there’s no real reason I’d be upset to see Harry’s Law go. What was awful in the first two episodes has improved, somewhat, but it’s also become deeply bland and mediocre, the ultimate show about affluent white people—like series creator David E. Kelley and his fictional stand-in Harry (Bates)—realizing that the world sometimes just isn’t fair to lower income folks, particularly those with darker shades of skin. I like some of the things Harry’s Law is theoretically trying to do in this regard, but it’s also a show that ends to the dulcet tones of first one character covering Elvis’ “In The Ghetto,” then transitions to Elvis himself singing it as the camera cuts to the vaguely slo-mo images of Harry and her employees walking past black gang members outside of a hospital. There’s nothing subtle here, and the show’s biggest failing continues to be the fact that it seems to take place in 1982, in terms of everything from racial politics to simple questions like whether any of the characters would use the Internet to do anything.
The show’s aesthetic continues to be deeply, deeply retrograde. Many scenes and acts end with a character staring pensively into the distance after someone tells them something they don’t want to hear. Soft piano plays on the soundtrack as we fade to black. Characters have a tendency to express exactly what they’re thinking at every moment or to explain what they’re doing, even if it’s completely obvious. Conflict is mostly avoided and immediately eschewed. Harry is told by a local man that if she wants them to kill the men who shot her friend Louis, she need only say the word. Cue staring, piano music, and slow fade to black. Immediately after commercial, though, the conflict’s resolved. Of course Harry’s not going to request anyone’s deaths! Yay! Everyone’s conscience lives to fight another day! Furthermore, the show’s court scenes continue to be so ridiculous that even I, a professed non-lawyer, can see how odd they are (even stretching the limits of making realistic concessions to have enjoyable TV drama). Surprisingly for Kelley, the liberal politics were mostly backgrounded in this episode. For a man who never met an impassioned liberal speech he couldn’t make even more treacly, that’s a big step. He seems more interested in exploring his characters and setting than in scoring political points at this juncture, and that’s a good thing.
If there’s one thing that surprised me revisiting Harry’s Law, it’s the level of serialization. I wouldn’t say the show is heavily serialized or anything. There’s a case of the week, and the characters all have little storylines that get resolved within the hour. But there’s definitely a sense of this being a continuing show where the storylines don’t always go away, particularly in regards to the characters and setting. The “previously on” montage clocked in at nearly two minutes—astounding for this kind of show—and was filled with lots of weird little character details that didn’t make a lot of SENSE (Harry has become a mediator in gang wars? What?) but were all mostly important to the episode that followed. Indeed, many of the episode’s central conflicts—which revolved around the shooting of Harry’s friend and a duo of teenage wannabe doctors who keep hurting people in the neighborhood alive by performing paramedic tasks they learned about on the Internet (in the episode’s ONLY nod to modernity, seemingly)—relied on understanding not just the previous episodes of the show but how Harry’s role as the only lawyer in the neighborhood had come to put her in certain positions amongst the people there. A plot where Brittany Snow’s character argued that the firm should leave the neighborhood because it was going to chew them up and spit them out resolved with all agreeing that they were going to stay, right before the Elvis kicked in. Kelley’s at least trying to build a world here, and that’s a nice step up from some of his most recent series.
And the thing I like best about the show IS that it’s trying to build that world. In a better world, some other writers take the central nugget of this show—cantankerous lawyer opens up shop in a lower income neighborhood and begins to stand up for its people—get rid of much of the ridiculousness—like that shoe store!—and make a show that speaks seriously about how hard many people in the U.S. have to struggle just to afford the basics of life. Kelley’s trying to do that, but he’s so wedded to his character types and tics that he just can’t get there. For every nice little scene that engages with these central questions, there’s another that gets sucked into an Elvis karaoke moment or into characters refusing to listen to nuance or reason due to their self-righteousness. (In particular, the story about the junior paramedics could have been told with much more nuance and subtlety—and not wasted guest star Camryn Manheim, who was pretty much just playing her Practice character anyway.) Kelley, it has to be said, really only knows how to write about three different characters, and all of them are white lawyers, which leaves him at a loss when it comes to the show’s many African-American characters.
But you know what? Harry’s Law is viewed by a lot of people, and a lot of them are people who often get all of their news from TV and, thus, don’t hear very much about income inequality or the sad state of America’s inner cities. If they do hear about these things, they’re usually filtered through extremism and scare tactics, the better to be digested by TV news. At the very least, Harry’s Law is trying to tell interesting, humane stories about the kinds of people who live in lower income neighborhoods, and for all of the show’s failings, it’s nice to think that it’s not yet another show extolling the many virtues of the rich. I still don’t think David E. Kelley knows what he’s doing entirely with this show, but his heart is in the right place, and a lot of people are uniquely tuned to its beat.