Take it from a guy in the profession: It’s hard to get TV critics to change their minds. We tend to judge a new series on its pilot and whatever extra couple of episodes a network or production company may send out. Once a show is viewed and tagged, it’s bagged. (Long-standing tags include ”It’s innovative!” — meaning the lighting is murky and you probably won’t watch it; ”It’ll be a crowd-pleasing hit!” — code for ”I was bored silly, but you watch ‘Fear Factor,’ don’t you?”; and the ever-reliable ”It’s a big, smelly stink bomb!”) Sorry. I could say we’re overworked, but who isn’t? That’s no excuse. To be honest, this is often the only way to share with readers immediate reactions that can offer useful information and viewing guidance. But consider this piece my tiny effort to break this habit.
Subject: The Guardian, a freshman series that did pretty well in its initial run, and CBS is now rerunning it regularly, hoping to snare new viewers (like me) who were too busy watching other new shows the rest of the year. You may know the premise: Young corporate lawyer Nick Fallin (Simon Baker, whose steel-door-slicing stare and pouty deadpan immediately lit up the Internet with admiring fans) was caught indulging in illegal drugs. Being white and law-degreed, Nick was sentenced to 1,500 hours of community service. So now he splits his time between the Pittsburgh white-shoe firm run by his dad, Burton Fallin (Dabney Coleman, looking dashing and reining in his crankiness in a subtle performance), and a down-at-the-heels legal service for the poor overseen by Alvin Masterson (”L.A. Law”’s Alan Rosenberg, with trademark shlubby wryness).
The idea, as devised by series creator David Hollander, is to place Nick in two extremely different worlds, and have him encounter one moral quandary after another. And so far, Hollander and his fellow writers have put Nick in some fine pickles. There was the time Nick bedded a girl who came on to him in a bar, who claimed to be a minor and then became the legal service’s client in a case where she was being separated from her sister — who actually turned out to be her daughter. That one sent me reaching for a cold lemonade and some aspirin.
Then there was the time Nick was asked by the fiance of a female coworker he’d recently smooched himself (!) to help him out of a jam — he’d been caught by the law with a hooker (!). Should Nick rat out the fiance to nice, sleek Louisa (Wendy Moniz)? ”Guardian” is a weekly ethics seminar, with Nick — whom even one of the people who like him describes as ”all buttoned up and tense” — presiding over the debate. The thing is, Baker’s look of perpetual woundedness is actually very effective. Watched week after week, his inner suffering becomes compelling — you root for this complex screwup, who’s obviously locked in a fierce psychological battle with his father-who’s-also-his-boss. Nick even said to Burton, after Dad chased off some guys who were pummeling Nick in a bar (don’t ask): ”I’m a screwup.”
Yet in the midst of all this, Nick must live up to the show’s title — he’s a guardian of the state, there to protect the vulnerable, many of whom are children. It’s to Hollander’s credit that he never uses a kid as a mere sympathy pawn; instead, he builds interesting cases around parental rights and the laws that sometimes inhibit those rights. Not for nothing is this guardian named Fallin — he’s ”fallen” from grace, but the show holds out the constant hope that he can regain a state of goodness, of purposeful purity.
The best thing about Nick is his sheer pigheadedness. In the season-ending cliff-hanger, he decided to leave the firm his father founded (Burton was just appointed to federal judge) and form his own law office, which, given both his criminal record and his luck, seems destined for trouble. I’m a convert: I can’t wait to see how the writers will blindside the perpetually wary Nick next season. In the meantime, tune in and catch up.