Every year there are several broadcast shows that teeter on "the bubble" — when shows that struggled with ratings and traditional means of television success face an uncertain future in terms of renewals and cancellations — and fans must rely on the graciousness of network executives to keep their favorite shows on the air. If you had told me last year that For the People, ABC's other Shondaland legal drama with 70 percent less murder, didn't make the cut for Season 2, I would have been disappointed, but ultimately understood the decision. This season I will actually be heartbroken if ABC doesn't give us another round of what has become one of my favorite weekly watches.
Don't get me wrong. For the People charmed me with its first season, especially Susannah Flood as the scene-stealing and pragmatic Kate Littlejohn, but it wasn't enough to overcome some of the show's pacing and identity issues. I loved Flood enough to come back for Season 2 though, and I'm so glad that I did. For the People did what few shows are capable of during a first season hiatus: It found itself and has used Season 2 to lean into those strong points for a more emotionally compelling drama that has figured out how to make its expansive cast work together rather than clash in constant opposition.
In Season 1, the Federal prosecutors and defenders at the center of the show were soldiers on opposite sides of war. They interacted only for plea deals or battling it out in court. While the show has always been good at justifying each side of the case so neither side is necessarily "the bad guy," it often felt like the show took place in two different universes. When you only saw the characters as opponents, it was hard to get invested as you switched sides of the courtroom every week. In Season 2, the show has blended their personal lives so there's stakes in and out of the courtroom, and even opportunities for people to team up. Kate prosecuted a case delivered to her by Sandra (Britt Robertson). Jay (Wesam Keesh) and Seth (Ben Rappaport) are roommates — and adorable bros! They have housewarming parties together. They get drinks together, and as a result we are able to feel for both sides of the aisle, which only heightens the tension when they have to go toe-to-toe in front of a judge.
Shondaland dramas are known for their soapy deliciousness, and even though we are getting more of the lawyers' personal lives, For the People has actually doubled down on the law in Season 2 in a really interesting way. No one tunes into Grey's Anatomy for medical breakthroughs or cool surgeries — they do it to see sexy doctors make emotional mistakes and still find a way to triumph. In a similar fashion, How to Get Away with Murder is less about the actual justice system and more about the backstabbing and manipulating going on between Annalise (Viola Davis) and a miscreant group of law students. For the People is predominantly about the practice of law, and is still early enough in its life to make it interesting. Even as the daughter of a defense attorney, the intense legality of For the People Season 1 sometimes made it hard to connect to the material, but the show figured out how to use cases to tell compelling human stories.
The stand-out episode of the season has to be Episode 2, which allowed acting legend Anna Deavere Smith to finally take center stage as she protected a young child being hunted down by ICE agents who had detained his undocumented father. Smith is often the most captivating person on screen just by delivering a look, but Episode 2 gave her juicy material that she transformed into gripping, emotional drama. Simultaneously, the episode revealed real-life flaws in our criminal justice system that are allowing families to be torn apart, even as undocumented individuals are coming forward to help create a safer and more lawful society.
While Episode 2 gets the shining star for its timeliness, the show continued to raise the emotional bar as Kate took down a federal judge pipelining children of color to a for-profit prison in Episode 5. Leonard's (Rege-Jean Page) struggle with the juxtaposition of race and class in Episode 6 delivered multiple thought-provoking, enthralling scenes that I'd put up against any tear-jerking speech from Emmy darling This Is Us.
In the age of Peak TV, television shows, particularly those on broadcast networks, have a limited amount of time to make an impact. For the People didn't make a splash in Season 1, but it did not waste the second chance it was given to deliver a better, more dramatic and more interesting show in Season 2. At press time, it was still ABC's second lowest-rated scripted show (just above the sitcom Speechless), which means it is very definitely on the chopping block for cancellation. However, there's no other show on the bubble that's drastically shown that it deserves a pardon for good behavior. So please, honorable TV executive judges, don't throw the book at this show.
For the People continues Thursdays at 10/9c on ABC.