New show All Rise has arrived and is trying to find its place on your TV lineup...but can it do that if it's too busy trying to be some other show?
Being a new show on the block is hard, particularly during peak fall TV season. Not only do you have to stand out among dozens of new shows, but you also must hold your own against returning favorites that already have a dedicated audience. And occasionally, you’ll get a new show that doesn’t even know what audience it’s trying to go for at all.
This is the case for CBS’ new series All Rise, which is currently facing its own identity crisis, masquerading, not as successfully, as some other court dramas (and comedies) that have come before it.
We enter into evidence:
While Ally McBeal was technically a legal dramedy (it competed in the comedy categories at all the awards shows), it definitely did not shy away from wandering into romantic comedy territory, with a focus on extremely quirky and awkward main character Ally (Calista Flockhart). And it wasn’t particularly conservative about using court cases as the plot devices to accomplish this — or in using court cases to explore pressing social issues.
All Rise has similar goals as Ally, but this gets muddled. All Rise does, in fact, also use its court cases and legal arguments to touch on contemporary social issues (as shown by the racist courtroom shooting by a cop on a power trip during the first episode and, in the second episode, where an ICE agent tries to illegally take an undocumented immigrant into custody in main character Lola Carmicheal’s [Simone Missick] courtroom — and in the sanctuary state of California). The Ally connection is also bolstered by the show’s interest in highlighting the (potential) romantic clashing between Lola and lawyer friend Mark Callan (Wilson Bethel), and lawyer Emily Lopez (Jessica Camacho) and bailiff Luke Watkins (J. Alex Brinson). And if you’re looking for an Ally stand-in, look no further than Emily herself, who, while highly skilled and competent, tends to be way more awkward to watch in action than any of the other characters here — even sans her burgeoning romance with Luke.
The West Wing
There are two things you can count on an Aaron Sorkin show doing: showing the inner workings of some job or institution; and putting together an interesting ensemble cast to do so. The West Wing is perhaps Sorkin’s most popular example, accomplishing both of these things while giving us a look into how the federal government works via president Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen) all the way to his personal aide Charlie Young (Dulé Hill).
All Rise incorporates this too, attempting to show us the inner workings of the entire court/judicial system with varying results. There’s newly-appointed Judge Lola, our moral entry point; her friend, deputy district attorney Mark Callan; lawyer and public defender Emily Lopez; deputy sheriff and bailiff Luke; judicial assistant Sherri Kansky (Ruthie Ann Miles); and court reporter Sara Castillo (Lindsay Mendez). While the cast alone has potential to pique interest and go where shows like Law & Order and CSI have yet to go, they just aren’t cohesive enough, nor is there enough chemistry to justify why we’re following these characters in this fashion. In fact, it would be more accurate to say that each character feels like they’re in a different show, rather than the same one.
Scandal was perhaps one of the most influential TV soap operas of the past decade, bolsted by its dual status as a political thriller. But, of course, what made Scandal so popular was the outlandishly and conspiratory (B613 anyone?) interconnected nature of the show, which used the entry point of PR extraordinaire Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) and soon reeled us in with her sordid and ongoing affair with President Fitzgerald Grant III (Tony Goldwyn).
All Rise plays with similar elements. Not only does it flirt with a potential romance between Lola and Mark (which would obviously be problematic with the power dynamic at play there), but it also goes for the same interconnected outlandishness — which becomes very clear when we’re introduced to Luke right after he stops the shooting in episode 1 and saves Lola and Emily, and when we find out that Mark’s mysterious father — Victor Callan — is a well-known criminal and grifter (which Mark tries to hide with little success, of course). The problem here is that there’s no resilient Olivia Pope stand-in to tie it all together…and make us truly care. Lola could be that, but I’m sure the character has no interest in such, seeing as she has a stronger moral bent than Olivia ever did.
And to be clear, there’s nothing wrong with All Rise taking inspiration from different shows. But the problem emerges when it can form no identity beyond being a callback to these shows.