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For the People Is Exactly What You'd Expect from a Shondaland Show

ABC's drama sticks to a formula -- and why not?

Liz Raftery

ABC has finally got the Shondaland formula down to a science... just in time for the prolific producer to take her talents to Netflix. No matter, though: With the latest Shondaland offering, For the People, set to debut next Tuesday, Rhimes - who remains an executive producer on the show - may be gone, but she certainly won't be forgotten.

For the People is basically Grey's Anatomyset in the legal arena, down to the introductory conceit of following a group of six young, attractive professionals as they get thrown headfirst into their first Grownup Jobs - in this case, at the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York. Three of them work as public defenders, while the other three work as prosecutors.

The cases in the first five episodes (which were provided by ABC for review ahead of the show's premiere) touch on important topics like racial profiling and mandatory minimums, making heavy-handed statements about each, but in a totally inoffensive way. It features a genre-spanning soundtrack that's trying a little too hard to be hip and edgy and, because it hails from Shondaland, one can't help but try to speculate which characters are going to end up in bed together (if they haven't already).

The show boasts a few heavy hitters, cast-wise. Hope Davis plays Federal Public Defender Jill Carlan, while Royal Pains' Ben Shenkman plays her frequent adversary, Roger Cunn, the chief of the criminal division in the U.S. Attorney's office. And Anna Deavere Smith is somewhat underutilized as clerk of court Tina Krissman.

Lead Britt Robertson (Girlboss) is a talented actress, but feels slightly off in this role. It's not necessarily a question of miscasting, because her character, Sandra Bell, is presumably supposed to seem a bit in over her head (despite having been a clerk at the Supreme Court for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg). But Robertson lacks the presence to be an intimidating one-on-one negotiator, let alone command a courtroom the way we're supposed to believe Sandra does in the first few episodes. The real scene-stealer among the newbie lawyers is Susannah Flood as Kate Littlejohn, a no-nonsense prosecutor who, remarkably, seems more focused on her career than her sex life - quite the anomaly in Shondaland. Here's hoping the writers maintain this character trait rather than saddling her with a romance, but that's probably wishful thinking.

Britt Robertson, Jasmin Savoy Brown, Wesam Keesh, For the People
Nicole Wilder, ABC

It's easy to say that For the People will easily slide into the Shondaland vacancy left by Scandal, which will air its series finale on April 19. But thankfully, the show steers clear - at least thus far - of the wackadoo drama and truly insane plot twists that have come to define Scandal and its successor, How to Get Away with Murder.

For the People hails from Paul William Davies, with Rhimes and her producing partner Betsy Beers on board as executive producers. Davies, a former writer on Scandal as well as the quickly-canceled 2013 drama Betrayal, has inked an overall production deal with ABC. His background is in law, however, with a J.D. from Stanford, a clerkship for a federal judge, and a nearly 10-year career as a litigator under his belt. And that comes through in the series, which seems to delight in dropping references to obscure laws and precedents, and feels all the more authentic as a result.

Setting aside recent dudsStill Star-Crossedand The Catch, it's fair to say that, more often than not, Shonda Rhimes has a Midas touch when it comes to shows at ABC. Especially given that it's imitating the formula established by Grey's Anatomy (which is on the verge of being renewed for a 15th season), it's more likely than not that For the People will be a hit for the network. But Davies should consider taking some more risks with the show and actually trying to break from some longstanding Shondaland traditions if he wants to truly make For the People a standout show on its own merits.

For the People premieres Tuesday, March 13 at 10/9c on ABC.