Why Legal Shows Have Such Fascinating Female Characters

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Photo: USA Network Media

Benched, which premiered two weeks ago on USA, stars Eliza Coupe as Nina, a corporate attorney brought low. The circumstances of her downfall manage to recall the pilots of both Arrested Development and Enlightened — an unlikely but intriguing feat. Nina, like the central characters of those shows, has invested everything in a system she mistook for a meritocracy. Like Michael Bluth, she fails to make partner and takes it badly; like Amy Jellicoe, she offers the spectacle of a blonde woman in a skirt suit totally losing it.

Nina is just the most recent in a tradition of interesting female characters onscreen who happen to be lawyers. Perhaps thanks to the staidness and structure that a courtroom backdrop provides, legal shows have tended to feature female characters who push limits without being disciplined into conformity. Legally Blonde explores how a ditzy performance of femininity could camouflage real ability. Ally McBeal indulges the idiosyncrasies of a character who could, in any less grounded context, have been dismissed as crazy; Ally’s ability to perform professionally saves her from our dismissal and earns her preoccupations (and hallucinations) a weight they wouldn’t otherwise have. Then there’s The Good Wife, rightly hailed as one of the best shows on TV, which has spent several seasons shredding the premise of its title to bits. It turns out “Saint Alicia” Florrick isn’t saintly, but — here’s the refreshing nuance — neither is she evil. She’s flawed and smart and introspective enough to confront her own compromises and hypocrisies: She’s forced, for instance, to think about how she used her sexuality to manipulate her way into a job, but she also proves herself worthy of all the jobs she was denied on the basis of her age and lack of professional experience. There’s Drop Dead Diva, which is transgressive in more ways than I can summarize here; it’s a legal show built around reincarnation, fashion, and unconventional talents like Brooke Elliott, Margaret Cho, and Rosie O’Donnell. And, of course, Shonda Rhimes entered the genre this fall with How to Get Away With Murder.

These shows are unusually comfortable with female protagonists who express desire and an edge. They want things, badly, whether it’s professional success, sex, love, or friendship. Those desires don’t usually get much in the way of satisfying narrative validation; we still have a knee-jerk tendency to see women on TV who want love as desperate, women who want sex as slutty, women who want money as gold diggers, and women who want success as brittle and neurotic. But lawyers are professional go-getters. Because being a good lawyer means advocating — it is literally a lawyer's job to go after things, hard — the authority to chase what you want spills over into other aspects of TV-lady-lawyer life. Desire gets a kind of narrative authority it doesn’t get everywhere. If these fictional women behave in often nontraditional ways, their professional training redeems (or at least explains) them.

Benched is the ultimate lady-lawyer show in this respect; Coupe’s character, Nina, is a muscular bundle of want, and Coupe’s undeniable gorgeousness never overcomes her character’s impulsive, intense desires: for her ex, for professional vindication, for really nice things. She’s a character to whom it has never occurred to quietly put herself in the position of being wanted. She’s a grabber. When Maria Bamford, who plays a much less confident attorney in the drab public defender’s office to which Coupe’s character has been reassigned, asks Nina how to get a man, Nina’s advice is succinct: “Focus on that voice inside of you that says, That’s mine.” Bamford replies: “What about that voice that says, You deserve nothing?”

I ran my grand theory of legal women on TV by Bamford herself, who ever so gently shot it down. Her take on legal shows was less optimistic. “Maybe it’s the one place where women can still wear skirts,” she said. “The medical shows, people are just wearing scrubs, and this is the one place where women can still strut around and look sexy.”

She’s right, of course: What most of these legal shows also share is a glamorous, glossy aesthetic. Lawyers have money, and legal shows can guiltlessly develop a visual style around designer clothes and expensive offices with original art and antique vases. What distinguishes Benched from its predecessors is how absolutely it rejects that aesthetic. It’s in some respects a typical fish-out-of-water story: Nina — a recognizable product of this other kind of lady-lawyer show — is ejected from the corporate environment and lands in the squalid reality of the public defender’s office. Benched stages the legal system as the drab, dispiriting, ugly, and dysfunctional mess most of us know it to be. The show repeatedly emphasizes how overcrowded and underserved people trapped in the system are, how disillusioned they are, and how that kind of human desperation can accumulate in material ways: Multiple scenes insist, for instance, on how awful different rooms smell. Nina doesn’t fit in, and she doesn’t want to. She longs to return to her cushy corporate job. “That’s not from Penny’s,” Bamford’s character, Cheryl, says to Coupe’s Nina when she arrives at the office in a darling designer skirt suit. Later, languishing under an absurd caseload, Nina will pause to stare across the courtroom at her ex and lust — not just after him — but after his suit’s perfect tailoring.

Benched is a traditional sitcom in many respects, but there’s a bleakness to its comedy reminiscent of Cheers and Party Down, both shows where no one ever wins. (This isn’t a coincidence; John Enbom, an executive producer and showrunner for Benched, is the co-creator of Party Down.) I asked Bamford and Coupe what sets Benched apart from the traditional sitcom. “It’s talking about the situation that most people are in when they’re put in a legal situation,” Bamford said, “and what that’s like in a completely overburdened system. Is it possible to have justice just because of the numbers? And once you’re in the system, unless you have money, you’re really, uh, no one will speak for you.” “It’s more gritty and raw and real,” Coupe said, “but, of course, a comedy. It’s not flashy, but the characters stand out, and that’s what brings the color to it. I like that it’s like the dull colors of the public defender’s office. Lots of grays and browns; it’s very real. And the fluorescent lights — there’s a tone, all around, from the aesthetic to the characters to the content, that is just so grounded.”

Perhaps the most exciting thing about Benched, however, is getting to see comedy giants Coupe and Bamford onscreen together. Bamford’s delightfully weird, incompetent Cheryl plays incredibly opposite Coupe’s manic, hypercompetent Nina — whose resilience despite the humiliation she suffers on a regular basis clashes with everyone else’s low morale. She fails often, she’s mostly wrong, but Nina bounces back, even after her high-handed tactics in the courtroom result in her having to clumsily climb over the courtroom divider in the same designer skirt suit that, in another life (and on another show), would communicate sexiness, self-possession, maybe even power. The latest entry in a long TV tradition of legal women whose idiosyncrasies we happily tolerate, Benched is perhaps the least flattering to its subject. It’s also the most honest about the neglect and abuse of which our legal system largely consists — giving a grim undercurrent to the story of a brassy woman with enormous drive thrown into a world where everyone’s been beaten down.