BLUFF CITY LAW – A Look Back

No grit, no grind, no hustle, no flow.

OP-ED CORNER

By Austin McLellan

Like everyone else in these parts, I was excited when NBC’s Bluff City Law (BCL) rolled into town. Jimmy Smits! Caitlin McGee! Jayne Atkinson! And they wanted to shoot right here in river city. Yep, with cameras, lighting, sound, and a tsunami of ‘free’ publicity. Yaay! At last . . . no more films set in Memphis but produced some place else. Uncork the champagne, or pop a local craft brew, and enjoy a sip of success. 

But one problem: the ratings were mediocre and NBC said we’re done shooting in Memphis for now, thank you very much. Gong. Sure, there might be another season. But with no production scheduled, who’s betting on that?  

Complicated? Not really. Very public primetime numbers don’t lie, at least not to the folk who matter. BCL wasn’t going to succeed if every man, woman, child, cat, rat, and rescue dog in Shelby County loved it to pieces. The show had to get traction in the big world, but it didn’t. Viewers outside Memphis were not convinced. Yes, there was competition from ABC, CBS, etc. which bested BCL in the numbers game. But BCL also followed The Voice, a show with a strong audience in place who might want to stick around for a legal drama at 9PM. Or maybe not. 

NBC’s Bluff City Law. Left to right: Caitlin McGee, Jimmy Smits, Michael Luwoye. (stock image)

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Interpret the ratings any way you want, few said that BCL was a success. And no one has called it a hit. The show just didn’t work. Pick your reason. 

more a white bread sandwich vs. a pulled-pork with extra sauce

Maybe the quality of the programming played a role in its demise? Nah. Surely enough footage of the Mississippi River, the Courthouse, local barrooms, and rib joints would captivate a national audience. This is NBC after all. They know what they’re doing. They’ll teach the cast how to talk Suthern. We’ll hear the sounds of Sun and Stax in every episode. They’ll get Memphis right. This was the producers’ vision from the start: to leverage the local vibe. Memphis likes to preserve its authenticity—however you wish to define it—as a barricade against encroaching commercialism and homogeneity. But in a flash, this authenticity itself gets sucked up, packaged, branded, and sold. Well, that’s all right. Everybody’s doing it. We’ll do it too. And if NBC pulls it off, then BCL is a winning bet for the community. Local government wagered a pile of money as incentives. 

But the Memphis that BCL found here and broadcast nationwide was kind of a dry chicken club sandwich on white bread (with no bacon), or in its better moments, maybe a grilled cheese. NBC promoted the series as a legal drama, with comps like Boston LegalL.A. LawThe Good Wife, Law & Order, etc. That’s a winning formula for sure. And yes, the show’s legal disputes worked OK as plot infrastructure. We got courtroom action, sympathetic plaintiffs, evil defendants, etc., but the legal wrangling was mostly a backdrop for mushy relationship intrigues. Instead of mental combat among adversaries, or a determined contest of wills, the action was a steady diet of “Are you okay’s?” among friends and family. And in BCL, Strait and Associates (they’re straight, get it? not crooked, see?) won most every case, so the stories had little pull. One could see the obvious endings coming a mile off.

The series began with an event completed in the past: the death of Elijah’s wife Carolyn, a prominent civil rights lawyer. It’s always tough to feel a character who never actually appears. We got no pictures of Carolyn, no flashbacks, a few quotes, almost nothing. Elijah (Jimmy Smits) isn’t particularly tore up about his late wife, nor is her daughter Sydney (Caitlin McGee). And yet the scripts invoked Carolyn for ten weeks, touching the lives of the characters who recall her with moist concern. One could say it’s a Memphis thang to linger over the past, luxuriating in grief. But that’s not what BCL is doing. Instead, this Carolyn haunts every episode like a dead Elvis (but without any good music). 

Another big deal in the show was Sydney and her father, Elijah. She was pissed because she learned Daddy was an adulterer, who slept with someone besides Mom. Not pleasant, surely, but why is she so horrified? Daddy even feels real guilty about it (hardly a good look on Mr. Smits, I say). All this is supposed to drive a fraught relationship, but it’s closer to oatmeal, or soggy grits if you prefer. Father and daughter disagree but have few arguments, and they never get ugly, which we all know would be perfect Mempho if they did. The Straits are all ready to hug it out, and they do. No pepper sauce please. 

As for Sydney, she’s a veteran of the ‘big leagues’ somewhere, but hardly looks it. If she earned her stripes the hard way, it doesn’t show—Sistah Strait doesn’t have a mark on her. Intellectually, this lawyer may be impressive but she is not interesting, and never gets her bitch on. The supporting cast features adequate role players, but none stand out. Law colleague Anthony Little (Michael Luwoye) is solid and staid. He went to law school with Sydney where they were both (spoiler alert) at the top of their class. (No, not a spoiler, of course they were the tops. Surprise. Yawn. What about the kids at the bottom? Wouldn’t the Memphis you know give us a lawyer more like Goodman in Better Call Saul, with his degree from American University- Samoa?)

Attorney Jake Reilly (Barry Sloane) was the guys’ guy. He was a real Jake and won freedom for George Bell, who was locked up for twenty years on a bad rap. But when George got out, I couldn’t root for him because all his troubles were over. His giddy happiness came so easy. His saintliness was way out there. His story arc ran through every episode but never caught on for me. Did anyone miss George when he wasn’t on screen? He reunites with his son, another hug. Then poof, he jumps off the bridge. Where did that come from?

Della (Jayne Atkinson) had compelling moments with her dad in Episode 8, but she was mostly a big soft shoulder for everyone. A twelve-year old girl (cuteness attack!) was the plaintiff in Episode 5. She was all dressed up in a suit and pearls like she was forty years old. In her case, Sydney tells the defendants at trial, a clutch of government miscreants, that they’re ‘acting just like children!’ Horrible!

But it’s not really anything these actors did, or did not do. They simply had few lines worth saying, let alone hearing. The show’s preachifying on various issues, including saving the world, were sermons, not voices, and rang hollow. BCL did aim for a little street cred. Elijah yells at a defendant: “I ought to beat yo’ ass,” while a lady lawyer is proud to say “I have a great ass.” ‘Hardly offensive these days, but is that the best we got? I accept that such remarks may have shown the local flavor NBC sought to capture. If so, I’ll live with it. 

What’s it have to do with Memphis?

But the main beef (or pork) is . . . what does any of this have to do with Memphis? These ‘brilliant’ attorneys with their family issues, the predictable social postures, the easy, happy endings . . .  all this could be anywhere. The people in this bluff city are close to perfect, and all troubles get resolved, usually with tears and a hug. (Series creator Dean Georgaris exhorted on Twitter to bring plenty of ‘tissues’.) Apparently, NBC wanted viewers to feel very, very comforted. Maybe this is the Memphis vibe, I don’t know. 

In sum, BCL didn’t get the job done either way. The series was not a feisty legal drama, though the final episode was crisp and energetic, much more than the previous shows. Nor was it much of a character-driven saga that spoke to the heart, or the funny bone, or the backside (ass), or whatever, like NBC’s This is Us. Rather, BCL was a big warm fuzzy without a lick of funk or crunk. For dramatic energy, the series was closer to Guiding Light or General Hospital. In the end, this production simply didn’t execute well on its stated goals. Would you invest your money in another season? (If so, that can probably be arranged.) 

Unnamed sources tell me that NBC did a fine job hiring local, making a payroll, and showing off Memphis to the world. The Mayor liked the show. The Film Commission loved it. The Governor blessed it. Actors and crew here in town got paid and that’s way cool. If you enjoyed identifying all the Memphis locations where NBC filmed, BCL was a real feast. But beyond that?     

Out in New Mexico, tourists pay money to see the house in Albuquerque where Walt in Breaking Bad threw a pizza onto the roof. They cruise by in minivans, stay in hotels, and visit restaurants. I think Memphis can inspire that kind of magic too. But with disappointing ratings and quality that was . . . well, decide for yourself . . . how can one say BCL helped that cause? 

In the end, what I truly wanted from BCL was a jumbo sandwich hot, pulled, with slaw and extra sauce. Maybe spaghetti on the side. A cold beer too. 

But all I got was a McRib. <>

Austin McLellan is a writer and native Memphian interested in local issues. His recent novel Twenty Grand, A Love Story, is billed as the “last word in Southern noir.”  More at www.austinmclellan.com.

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(feature image, free clip art)

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