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Doubt Turns Katherine Heigl Into an Accidental Anti-Feminist

The legal drama's premise could be tone deaf in a post-pantsuit world

Malcolm Venable

Sadie Ellis (Katherine Heigl) on CBS' new legal drama Doubt is many things.

She's a gal who commutes to work in Manhattan via bicycle but can go from Spandex shorts to biz casual right before your eyes on the street. She's a principled defense attorney, a bit socially awkward and, as her entanglement with her client on trial for murder illustrates, not that good at picking romantic prospects.

That last part there is the setup and, at times, the wobbly part of the show, which in its formal description at least centers itself around Sadie's major conundrum. She's fallen for scruffy sexy doctor Billy Brennan (Steven Pasquale) who's on trial for murder -- her client, it has to be reiterated -- and Boy! what a sticky situation!

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Of course, there's much more to the story: She works at a firm that includes equally principled, smart and determined attorneys, all of them also a bit thick-skulled in their personal lives. Under the direction of Isaiah Roth (Elliott Gould) they're trained to stand up for the defenseless, and give a voice to the voiceless. That translates to ripped-from-the-headlines story-of-the-week cases, like the one with the college student being threatened with charges for wearing a sandwich board with her rapist's face on it. The show's standard courtroom drama elements, and the stories about the woebegone people caught up in a bad situation, are fairly compelling -- by the book though they are. And though the series begins to shake loose its flaws a few episodes in, the first two offered to critics show that re-re-re-replicating a formula ain't like riding a bike.


DOUBT stars Katherine Heigl as Sadie Ellis, a brilliant attorney at a boutique firm who starts to fall for her charismatic client, Billy Brennan (Steven Pasquale, center), an altruistic pediatric surgeon recently accused of murdering his girlfriend 24 years ago.


Perhaps this (male) writer is nitpicking, and overly assumptive, but the idea that a highly educated, strong-willed lawyer would get the hots for her client -- again, a man on trial for murder -- seems not just silly but slightly condescending in a post-#ImWithHer/#ShePersisted era. Sure, it could happen; the same thing happened, though much more gracefully, on The Night Of. The same romantic mess plays out on Doubt too, with Isaiah falling for his client, Sadie's imprisoned mom Carolyn (Judith Light), in a backstory that'll play out as the series progresses. Here though, her bad romance feels trite. There's little lead-up to it; we're expected to accept, off the bat, that Sadie has leapt over professional and ethical considerations to risk everything because, you know, feelings and she's presumably too busy to date. Doesn't she have Tinder?

Look, we're all messy. We fall for people we shouldn't -- as do many great characters on many great shows including Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, where the heroine/villain is pathologically boy crazy. But that concept wins because it's meta commentary on a worn trope -- a parody of the idea that female characters must be hostage to their emotions, despite their judgement. That's an idea that's both game-changing and perfectly aligned with the "woke" culture of now. In that context, Sadie's untamed lust -- for the clichéd hot doctor no less -- feels like it's not really reading the room. That her assistant Lucy (Lauren Blumenfeld) is also dimwitted, and Dreama Walker plays a naive, constantly out-of-her-element blonde from the Midwest trying to make it in New York, you at times feel like you're watching a show with an outlook from the first Clinton era.


Laverne Cox as Cameron Wirth on Doubt

Laverne Cox as Cameron Wirth on Doubt

It's that pandering and tonal confusion that scars the first few episodes. It goes from dramatic to melodramatic to slightly slapstick to fiery courtroom monologues so quickly, and accompanied by a grandly cinematic score washing over every emotional moment, you wish it would pick a prevailing feeling and stay put. Of course, plenty of sorta-similar shows, including Heigl's former home Grey's Anatomy, blend all these elements beautifully; that melange is a speciality of Doubt's creators and co-executive producers Tony Phelan and Joan Rater, previously big shots on Grey's. That footing isn't here, at least initially.

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Some pieces definitely work. It's heartening to see lawyers standing up for the little guys and girls, and Gould provides structural calm as the deeply liberal head of the shop. Dulé Hill smoothly sails through sensitivity and serious as Sadie's colleague and work husband Albert; Laverne Cox, in a breakthrough role as the first trans actress in a major role on a primetime network drama, plays trans attorney Cameron with admirable pizazz and spunk. Even Heigl, despite her character's cardinal sin, services her character well and Judith Light remains as impressive as ever.

By the fifth episode, many of the aforementioned OBJECTIONS! have been resolved and Doubt seems to have matured in its focus. (Only the first, second and fifth were provided to critics.) By then, the show feels like it has picked a mood and stuck with it; Billy's presumed innocence is cast further into, uh, doubt after Sadie has already slept with him and is more invested in him than ever. Will we be too? The jury is still out.

Doubt premieres Wednesday Feb. 15 at 10/9c on CBS.

(Full disclosure: TVGuide.com is owned by CBS.)