Here's an interesting statistic: faith in the legal system is not at an all-time low. A Gallup poll found that this year, 24 percent of Americans have "a great deal/quite a lot" of confidence in the justice system, up two percent from 2018. More people — 34 percent — have "very little" confidence, but in 1994, 44 percent of poll respondents had very little confidence. People want to believe.
Enter Bluff City Law, an optimistic legal procedural that wants to show what it looks like when the justice system works. In the series premiere, which aired Monday, corporate lawyer Sydney Strait — played by Caitlin McGee, who after a decade of guest spots and unsuccessful pilots is finally getting a starring role, which she handles with confidence — leaves the "dark side" after her mother's death and rejoins her semi-estranged father Elijah's (Jimmy Smits) advocacy firm, fighting for the people she used to crush.
Sydney and Elijah have a lot of tension due to the fact that he was unfaithful to her mother throughout their marriage. Elijah was a different person in private than he was in public, and Sydney resents him for it. Plus, Sydney's hard-edged style rubs others at the firm the wrong way. But she wins her first case and secures a settlement for the family of a man dying from exposure to a pesticide the manufacturer knew was carcinogenic. The joy of victory on the side of righteousness makes Sydney resolve to keep working with her father — even though she finds out she has a half-brother from one of his affairs. It's a very pilot-y pilot that effectively establishes the tone and structure of the series. Going forward, the series will take on a case of the week format while also exploring the characters' complicated personal lives. The good guys won't win every case, nor will they always act like morally perfect people, but they'll always strive to serve the greater good.
"This show grew out of a feeling that our legal system, flawed that it may be, is one of the most remarkable systems on Earth, and we're not celebrating that," co-creator and executive producer Dean Georgaris told TV Guide at the show's premiere at SeriesFest in June. "We're not paying attention to what's good about that. I wanted to do something that felt like The West Wing, that reminded us that the world is a good place and worth fighting for."
The casting of Jimmy Smits as the Kennedy-ish Elijah is very intentional. Like Georgaris said, the show is meant to evoke the idealistic liberal patriotism of The West Wing. It's also meant to recall Smits' other hit NBC drama, L.A. Law, with which it shares some legal soap DNA. Bluff City Law won't have the cultural influence of those shows, because broadcast dramas don't hit the way they used to, but it may provide a sop to middle-aged liberals who wish things could go back to the way things were, when problems weren't so complicated and people in nice suits could talk their way to a solution. Reasonable people could be persuaded and good ideas won. Bluff City Law is as much a fantasy as Game of Thrones, but it's a harmless one as long as you know it's not real. It's entertaining and well-made and shot on location in Memphis, which makes it look a little different than the typical network procedural shot in New York or Los Angeles.
And hey, the legal system deserves some celebration. It's helped America last this long, and sometimes you get some money from a class action suit when a corporation gets held somewhat responsible.
Bluff City Law airs Mondays at 10/9c on NBC.