Preview: Canterbury’s Law

Canterbury's Law

In the US: Thursdays, 9/8c, Fox. Starts January

In the UK: Not yet acquired

You may be aware of the phenomenon of “TV a-holes”. There’s a lot of them about. We’re talking about TV shows, such as House and Shark, that revolve around brilliant but obnoxious professionals. They get the job done better than anyone, but not before they’ve told you that your mother was a hamster and your father smelled of elderberries.

In all these cases, you’ll notice two things

  1. They’re still the hero and you still kind of like them
  2. They’re all blokes

Now we have what looks like a prima facia case of “you’ve come a long way baby, but just how far?”. Canterbury’s Law stars ex ER star Julianna Margulies as a defence attorney prepared to do whatever it takes to prove her client’s innocence, even if that involves breaking the law herself. And she’s a complete a-hole. The question is, will we like her as well?

Plot (taken, despite the laws of copyright, word for word from the Wikipedia web site)

The series revolves around Elizabeth Canterbury (portrayed by Julianna Margulies), a rebellious female defense attorney who’s willing to bend the law in order to protect the wrongfully accused. A rising star, she puts her career on the line to take on risky and unpopular cases, even when they take a toll on her personal life.

Elizabeth and her law professor husband, Matthew (Aidan Quinn), are both haunted by the disappearance of their young son (Jeremy Zorek) and have just settled in Providence, Rhode Island, in an attempt to distance themselves from the tragedy and put their relationship back together. But even as they try to move on beyond the tragedy, those goals become elusive whenever Elizabeth’s work provides a stark reminder of the justice absent in their own lives.

At work, Elizabeth must also deal with fellow associates Russell Cross (Ben Shenkman), a former district attorney, who was forced out of his job by his financially-strapped boss and whose knowledge will guide Elizabeth in their cases, even if she doesn’t want to hear his reasoning or logic; Chester Fields (Keith Robinson), a congressman’s son who wants to distance himself from his political family; and Molly McConnell (Trieste Dunn), a headstrong individual who’s not afraid to switch sides, even if it’s against Elizabeth.

Is it any good?

Well, there’s nothing desperately ground-breaking about the show, apart from that a-hole factor. Lawyer breaks the rules to get her client off – been there, seen it, etc. In fact, a lawyer who sticks completely by the rules and isn’t a maverick would be a novelty.

Neither is there anything great about the cast (although the preview I saw had Linus Roache rather than Aidan Quinn, so I can’t tell if he makes it any better), the plot or the dialogue, and the direction was pretty mundane, despite the fact Mike Figgis was behind it all.

The sole potential attraction – as with House, Shark, et al – is Canterbury. Now this is where it gets tricky. The producers have tried to make her a little quirky in her personal life: she’s having marriage problems so suggests dance classes instead of counselling. There’s also a pointless, tedious backstory about her disappearing son which seems to be there as a thin rationalisation for her a-holeness as well as covering fire: “You can’t hate her: she’s lost her son”.

But ultimately, that’s all a big nothing compared to the major elements of her characterisation: her a-holeness. She’s cheating on her husband, but she’s mean to her partner in adultery. She’s willing to wind up the parents of a murdered child if it’ll help her case. She’ll do whatever it takes, no matter how heinous, if it’ll help her client.

As with most new female characters on US TV who are defined as assertive and strong (cf Supernatural, Prison Break), that apparently means talking exactly like a man, accepting misogynistic premises and buying into them: eg “I can throw further than that and I throw like a girl”. It’s the workplace as a locker-room theory of empowerment: if a woman can walk into it without qualms and hold her own, she’ll be as good as one of the boys and accepted – men are strong therefore to be strong you have to be a man. No coming up with a female version of assertiveness and strength, no refusing to make all the same mistakes as men, no acknowledgement of female culture, female perspectives, etc – for a woman to be strong, she has to be a man.

Still, you might think that’s a perfectly valid point of view and maybe it’s true in the US legal industry, in which case you might well like Elizabeth Canterbury. But this ‘strength’ and having a missing son are pretty much her only qualities. Can you like someone just for being strong and lacking much of a conscious? Do they need charm, a sense of humour, anything to make them likeable, even if they are a major a-hole in other ways? Harking back to Shark and House, they both have other things going for them that make us like them. House is mean for lots of reasons, but he’s usually just telling unpalatable truths and he’s not doing it to advance his career; Canterbury is pretty much her job and getting ahead.

More interestingly, does a woman need “cuddly” qualities a male character doesn’t need in order to be liked? This could have been an interesting barometer for current attitudes to strong women, but since we don’t really have a one-to-one match between Canterbury and her male counterparts on other shows, it’s hard to tell whether Canterbury would have been unlikeable since she’s a strong woman in a misogynistic society or unlikeable for being an a-hole – particularly since Margulies plays her as though she’s been hewn from a great big block of evil.

So not all promising, despite the somewhat stellar line-up behind (Dennis Leary is one of the exec-producers) and in-front of the camera. Here’s a Yahoo! video to help you see what it’s like:


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.

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