Harvey Specter's (Gabriel Macht) most iconic scene from the Suits pilot is when he explains that he loves to live life at a more reckless pace than everyone else. For the next six seasons of that show, Jessica Pearson's (Gina Torres) main role was to make sure that Harvey's adrenaline addiction didn't blow up his life or run the law firm she spent most of her life building into the ground.
Now, Jessica centers her own story in Pearson, the Chicago-set spin-off that explores the former managing partner's new life as a fixer for the corrupt mayor's office. The idea was spawned by Torres, who was inspired to put Jessica into the middle of a political quagmire as she watched the 2016 election unfold. She recruited Suits executive producer Aaron Korsh and Daniel Arkin and the trio put their heads together to map out Jessica's next chapter.
While Harvey's iconic line does ironically roll around again within the first season of Pearson, that is where Suits fans should stop looking for comparisons. Pearson follows a different structure than its predecessor, choosing to tease a flash-forward mystery that's solved in the final moments of the first season. It looks different, as well. While Suits is all shiny glass and brightness to represent the white-collar world of corporate law, Pearson is dark and muddy as a metaphor for the dirty business that Jessica is getting herself involved in. Differences are not necessarily a bad thing, and I applaud Pearson for going the extra mile to establish itself away from Suits, but the stark contrast could make it hard for many suits fans to make the jump. Meanwhile, new fans will have to wade through some identity issues before Pearson finds its true groove.
When it comes to plot, if one thing is clear from the 10 episodes screened for critics, Jessica has firmly left the corporate world behind her. Instead, she attempts to reconnect with her estranged family in her hometown, right as they're being swallowed up by gentrification perpetrated by Jessica's new boss, the mayor of Chicago (Morgan Spector). The idea of bringing Jessica's family in was to show more of Jessica at home to bring out her vulnerable and human side. However, that relationship truly does feel forced at times as we've never previously seen a desire from Jessica to connect with them.
Instead, the chemistry of the series is most palpable between Jessica and her chosen family at the mayor's office. More specifically, it's Jessica and the City's Attorney Keri Allen (Bethany Joy Lenz), who start out as enemies and slowly become each other's best allies to form the show's most intriguing relationship. These two going toe-to-toe provides the sizzle throughout the season, with Jessica's contentious relationship with the mayor following close behind. While the goal was to show Jessica's softer side, Torres still thrives when her character is taking charge of whatever room she's in and the actress does it in Pearson as flawlessly as she ever did it on Suits. Those bold and fearless tirades are still Torres' weapon, and she yields it masterfully within Pearson's first outing.
Overall, the stakes are higher on Pearson than they ever were on Suits, but, ironically, the series is still much more of a slow burn than the flagship show. Enough pieces of the mystery that lead to Jessica's ominous train track meeting teased in the first episodes are delivered throughout the season so that here's no real shock when you finally get to see it solved.
Instead of the story propelling you forward, the characters with their multiple vices and habit for backstabbing keep you going, which isn't how it should be with a show positing itself as a political crime drama. The season finale felt like Pearson finally got to a place where it can really get started, but there's no jaw-dropping cliffhanger or big twist to help stick the landing. It doesn't matter how good the lines are or how commanding Torres' presence is if the story isn't there to back up why those lines are being delivered in the first place.
Despite Jessica Pearson being a beloved character from a previous series, Pearson took a minute to really figure out what it is and where it should go. The end of Season 1 is a hopeful promise of what the show can do, especially with the mayor and Jessica forced to realize they're in this together. Clearing up that tension should allow the story to put some pressure on the gas, which is what Pearson needs most to make itself the showcase Torres truly deserves and give Jessica that audacious life she's looking for. The ingredients are all there for something great and memorable, someone just needs to add a little hot sauce for a kick.
TV Guide Ratings: 3.5/5
Pearson premieres Wednesday, July 17 at 10/9c on USA.