The Firm: A Cautionary Tale of Television

When I first heard about NBC’s concept of The Firm, I was seriously excited. The idea of bringing back Mitch McDeere and company from John Grisham’s book and the 1993 movie was a seriously fantastic one. That story was full of suspense, paranoia and held some great characters. In fact, done right, the show had the potential to be the next Lost (something television has been looking for since episode three of the castaway show).

But things went seriously wrong from the beginning. NBC ordered 22 episodes from THE CONCEPT, without a script, without a pilot episode, without even stars. The hit-starved network then rushed the show into production for midseason 2012, rather than focusing on a Fall 2012 launch. Showrunner Lukas Reiter then became attached to the project; Reiter has no show credits longer than a single-season and last ran the god-awful The Outlaw, which I think was cancelled during the airing of it pilot episode. It rushed casting, failed to adequately create a deep mythology or good background for its characters (despite the source material). NBC then decided to air the show on Thursday nights at 10pm, following an entire night of offbeat comedies that won’t mesh will with the sentiment of the show.

In short: NBC and Reiter screwed the show up before the ink was even dry on its first screenplay. This is a pooch-screwing worse than even I thought network television was capable of.

The show will be canceled; of this there’s little doubt. After just a handful of episodes, the show was kicked to the Saturday night wasteland and all marketing has vanished. With the 22 episode order, all will likely be shown, but not to very many people.

But this shouldn’t have happened, and could have been easily avoided with a few adjustments.

Fall 2012 Launch, not January 2012
The show was a concept in summer of 2011. With no script, stars, producers or even an outline, there’s no way the show should have aired less than six months later. If you have a great idea in television (and this was a great idea), take the time to nurture and develop it. The show will hopefully be on for the next five to 10 years, so what’s half a year of development, really?

Better Showrunner
I’m sure that Reiter is a wonderful person and will one day be a terrific showrunner, but hiring someone of his procedural and hyperactive background was a serious mistake. There’s plenty of people out there who have experience in serial shows; The Firm needed one of these people.

Why Recast?
The Firm, the show, centers around the four remaining folks from the movie: Mitch McDeere, his wife Abby, brother Ray and Tammy Hemphill, Mitch’s partner in crime during the take-down of Bendini, Lambert and Locke. The show decided to advance the show 10 years; since the movie took place in 1993, this makes the show take place in 2003. That’s not how it actually happened, and it can potentially be a forgivable error if the show is well done. My guess is that was a strategic decision to keep a younger set of characters.

This was a bad idea. It created too many questions for those familiar with the source material, and this is your built-in fan base that helps with the launch of the show. Pissing these people off was a serious mistake.

The four actors who played those roles in the original film were Tom Cruise (McDeere), Jeanne Tripplehorn (Abby), David Strathairn (Ray) and Holly Hunter (Tammy). Obviously, getting Cruise for the show was not going to happen. But you had the perfect storm in Tripplehorn and Hunter just coming off of long-running shows (Big Love and Saving Grace, respectively) and Strathairn just starting a cable show (Alphas) with a limited run.

There’s frankly no reason that the trio sans Cruise couldn’t have been reunited for the show. Instead of 10 years, advance the show 20; making it one year ahead of current time. All were age-appropriate for their roles. Tripplehorn is five years older than Abby, but can easily pass for 45. Strathairn would need to dye his hair, but would be fine at 55-60, and Hunter is just right. This also allows for fun technology advances, a must with any conspiracy thrillers.

One quick note about the daughter: love the fact that they added a McDeere kid. But in this new format, make her 13 or 14 instead of 10. Gives her much more possibility for tension between her and her parents, and more potential for storylines of rebelliousness, etc. The 10 year old basically just doesn’t add much.

As for Mitch…

Stronger Lead
I respect Josh Lucas as an actor, but he has a tendency to be wooden. McDeere was the plumb role of the 1993 movie season, thus the casting of golden boy Cruise. There’s no reason why Mitch couldn’t have been the top television role of 2012. A stronger lead would also assist in the show’s marketing, and perhaps pull in more of a built-in fan base.

Plus, if you advance the show like I suggest above, Lucas is now far too young to play McDeere.

McDeere graduated from law school at the beginning of the book, passed the bar exam and spent several months working for Bendini, Lambert and Locke in the film. As a golden boy who went straight from undergrad at Western Kentucky to Harvard Law, so it’s easy to say he graduated at 25 and entered the Witness Protection program at no later than 26. So advancing the story 20 years makes him 45-46 in the television show.

Given the relative age of the cast, you’d be looking to cast an actor for McDeere with a big name but without a lead film career, a natural leading man who could play a whip-smart, paranoid and charismatic lawyer and who is around 50 years old.

Though there’s a handful of characters who could hit that mark, consider Kevin Bacon for the role. Bacon has the charisma of a lead (though usually chooses not to be), is a fine actor and is a big enough name to market a show around. In a lower-budget production in 1993, he could have very easily been McDeere the first time around.

I also came up with Rob Lowe and Bill Paxton, though both have their problems for McDeere.

This is NOT a Legal Procedural
It’s funny, but I actually consider the blueprint for a serial drama to be Joss Whedon’s short-lived Dollhouse. Without going too much into that show, it introduced its characters enough through a handful of early procedural episodes early on, then slowly moved into the mythology of the show; in short, what the show was really about.

Reiter instead chose the lazy-ass approach of showing us a legal procedural with random flash-forwards at the beginning and the end of each episode. It gave us just enough to piss us off without advancing the story, and made viewers feel like the procedural portion was just a waste of time.

The time needed to be spent developing the characters and the mythology; the legal procedural should have been a method of doing this. Reiter got this the wrong-way round.

Time Slot
I’ve ranted about NBC’s scheduling in a previous post (see the archives section); few examples are better than what the peacock net chose to do with The Firm.

Sensing that they had a hit on their hands, NBC dropped the show in the Thursday at 10pm timeslot. This timeslot has an incredible history, having held down the game-changing drama ER for 15 seasons. Ever since, NBC has been looking for the next ER and the next show to fill its timeslot.

Simply put, this timeslot isn’t meant for a heavy drama anymore. NBC has established a quirky, offbeat comedy night on Thursdays. Shows like The Office and Parks and Recreation simply don’t mesh with shows like The Firm, no matter how good they are. Frankly (and I’ve mentioned this before as well), this timeslot has Parenthood all over it, but NBC can’t figure this out.

The Firm is indeed a 10pm show, but NBC doesn’t have a good lead-in for the show right now. They’re developing a serial drama through Lost creator JJ Abrams for next season; establishing Monday night with Abrams’ show at 9pm and The Firm at 10 would have been ideal.

Episode Count
We learned with Lost that heavily serialized shows should not do a 22 episode order; it pushes the mythology a bit too much and unnecessarily over-exposes the show.

However, there’s a bit of a conundrum with these shows on network television; 22 episodes is the standard order, but that is spread over something like 40 weeks. No one likes re-runs during these runs. So what Lost did was cut their orders to 16 episodes and only ran them in the spring.

It’s harder to do this with a newly established show, however. Fall shows tend to do better and are more likely to stick than mid-season shows. All of this creates something of a conundrum for those seeking to sell heavily serialized shows to an over-the-air network.

My solution: order two 12-episode seasons, run one in the fall and one in the spring. Run each season without breaks, promote each season as such and separately, and make it clear when ending the fall season as to when the show will return. Once the show establishes itself, return each January with 16 episode orders like Lost did to keep the seasons tight and to avoid over-exposure.

Planning, Planning, Planning
When creating a show like this that’s based in a deep conspiracy and heavily based in its own mythology, planning is essential. The producers should have sat down and created a six season plan that included a beginning, middle and ending, and worked towards that. It’s the only way that the show can continually drive itself and not waste its viewers’ time.

In addition, the show should have played more into the character’s backgrounds. Though not touched on in the movie, there’s a ton of good material about the McDeere’s backgrounds in the book that could be mined for some nice development.

Is it too early for a reboot? C’mon NBC, lets do this right next time around.