TV Review: TNT's 'Franklin & Bash'
Breckin Meyer, Mark-Paul Gosselaar series isn't satisfying as comedy or legal drama
As part of the upfront chaos that peaked last month, the Big 5 networks (or Big 4 + The CW, depending on how you keep track) canceled dozens upon dozens of shows to make room for dozens upon dozens of fresh-faced pilots, as part of the reliable The Devil You Don't Know Could Draw Higher Ratings Than The Devil You Do Know ethos that fuels the industry unless you happen to be "Fringe" or "Chuck."
[Check out the Funeral Plans for 2010-2011's Network TV Freshman Casualties gallery Sepinwall and I threw together...]
Many of the departed shows had fans, vocal fans, people willing to spew great gouts of vitriol in the direction of anonymous network suits for having the temerity to cancel a "Chicago Code" or a "V." Although it was among the most empirically popular shows to get the axe -- using Nielsen measurement, because otherwise we're relying purely on anecdote -- "The Defenders" has inspired minimal lamentation.
"The Defenders" wasn't a great show and it didn't re-write the rules of the legal procedural, but it was a surprisingly pleasant dramedy about two likable rogues (Jim Belushi and Jerry O'Connell) who practiced law on the edge. Half ambulance chasers, half bleeding hearts, they took an oddball assortment of cases tied to no particular branch of legal expertise and they reliably won, because they were willing to do whatever was necessary to help their clients. They wouldn't exactly break the law, but they'd definitely push the edge of the legal envelop, turning every case into the sort of circus that probably had real lawyers in the audience cringing. Sometimes the cases were interesting and occasionally the Vegas setting added value (even if they stopped shooting in Sin City after the pilot), but what carried "The Defenders" was the strong chemistry between Belushi and O'Connell, the -- God, I hate this word and its rampant overuse -- "bromance" between the two characters, a mixture of bickering and mutual respect which, in a show with mixed-gender leads, would have spawned endless will-they/won't-they speculation. Like I said, "The Defenders" wasn't the sort of show that I'd ever get worked up enough over to truly mourn its passing (much less write about on a regular basis), but it was in a category with "Castle" and "Hawaii Five-0" of network procedurals I DVR and contentedly watched while doing a couple other things.
Plowing through five episodes of TNT's "Franklin & Bash," including rewatching the pilot and third episodes that I first watched back in December, the thought that most frequently came to my mind was, "Geez. This is making me miss 'The Defenders.'"
All of the things that "The Defenders," and specifically Belushi and O'Connell, did to downplay the annoying and superficially quirky aspects of the main characters and their practice, "Franklin & Bash" eschews. It's "The Defenders" shot through what the writers hope will come across as a youthful filter. It doesn't work.Too many of the characters in "Franklin & Bash" are stuck in obnoxious ruts and the cases-of-the-week aren't fresh enough to compensate. The result is a broad, sloppy series that actually would have played better on TNT's corporate sibling TBS. You know what would have played better on TNT? That's right. "The Defenders."
More on "Franklin & Bash" after the break...
Created by Kevin Falls and Bill Chais, "Franklin & Bash" is the tale of two flamboyantly immature attorneys, Franklin and/or Bash. Peter Bash (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) is cocky, preening, fast-talking and juries love him, even if judges and opposition counsel hate him. Jared Franklin (Breckin Meyer) is a scrappy underdog even though his father is a wealthy, high-powered lawyer and philanthropist. Did I crib some of those descriptions from TNT's press notes? Sure. Other than a few periodic reminders of these characteristics, Franklin & Bash are basically interchangeable. I think that in "Defenders"-speak, Gosselaar is playing the O'Connell part and Meyer is a svelter Belushi, but it's unclear.
Franklin & Bash are flying by on the respect seats of their respective pants, with no structure to their lives and minimal overhead, other than their two junior associates, agoraphobic bookworm Pindar (Kumail Najiani) and ex-con paralegal Carmen (Dana Davis), who are devoted to their bosses presumably because they wouldn't be employable elsewhere or otherwise. Yup. Franklin & Bash may come across as jury-baiting ego-maniacs, but they're humanitarians as well.
On TV shows like this, the break-all-the-rules attorneys always win and Franklin and Bash have attracted the attention of maniacal legend Stanton Infeld, who decides that what his respectable firm truly needs is two loose cannons to shake things up, something about yin and yang. Before you can say "That doesn't seem sufficiently motivated," Franklin and Bash have moved their motley crew from the outhouse to the penthouse, where their presence immediately alienates WASP-y heir-to-the-throne Damien Karp (Reed Diamond) and, to a lesser degree, Carcell Beauvais' Hanna Linden, who doesn't appear in every episode, perhaps befitting her status as slightly-less-bothered-by-F&B.
It's a very simple structure for a show and, if you combine the two main characters into one uber-irksome super-rebel, it would also be a simple structure for an early Adam Sandler movie. Every week, Franklin and/or Bash horns their way onto a high-profile case. Every week, wacky Stanton encourages his new protegees. Every week Damien is initially annoyed, then sees this as a chance to see his rivals go down in flames, then ends up being humiliated when Franklin and Bash prove to be crazy-like-a-fox, rather than crazy-like-a-Sheen.
Ooops. Did I just spoil an episode or the entire run of "Franklin and Bash" for you? Apologies. This is not a show that dares to cheat viewer expectations and defy familiar formats.
It doesn't need to be. As a character-driven procedural, all that's required is that you're amused enough by the antics to keep checking in every week.
Instead, the show's evolution is almost counter-intuitive. The point of the show is that Franklin and Bash should be joining Infeld & Daniels and their free-spirited ways should be teaching everybody else new ways to win and have fun doing it. Instead, Franklin and Bash join Infeld & Daniels and with each passing week, the two main characters become less distinctive and less amusing. Were "Franklin & Bash" designed as a tragic-dramedy, you could justify this as an arc: Two successful and individualistic free-spirits sell their souls to a white-haired devil and soon become a part of the machine they used to be raging against. That's not what we're supposed to think the show is about, though.
In the early episodes, Franklin and Bash are presented more like Van Wilder & Van Wilderer, two slackers who'd rather nosh on hot dogs, chat about pop culture and chase ambulances than work, until they get into a courtroom and suddenly the lights go on. Although Gosselaar and Meyer are both actors fully capable of turning down their smarmier instincts, some effort has to be made in that direction. Instead, both actors achieve a sitcom-level of smarminess within a single-camera dramedy framework, which is jarring and unappealing. More damning for the series is that the creators, both veterans of some very solid legal procedurals, haven't laid sufficient groundwork to illustrate how Franklin and Bash's FranklinandBash-iness makes them good at their jobs. In more than half of the episodes I watched, the grand vindication that's supposed to make up the final act felt either unearned or confusingly incomplete. For a show like this to work, it has to be absolutely crystal clear how and why these guys are successful in a way that's organic to how and why these guys are underestimated. "Franklin & Bash" is unable to do that.
But by the fourth and fifth episodes that I watched, neither Franklin or Bash is doing anything that a more conventional attorney couldn't or wouldn't do. Franklin and Bash are even regularly slotted to work cases separately, which proves not to be ideal for either the distinctiveness of their characters or for illustrating the way they practice law. With Franklin and Bash reduced to white-bread "normals," the episodes become showcases for visiting guest stars. Jason Alexander dominates the fourth episode as an investor-cheating CEO prone and James Van Der Beek dominates the fifth episode, which may only exist for the consciousness-bending spectacle of Zack Morris and Dawson Leery occupying the same frame. Either way, "Franklin & Bash" ends up benefitting from the neutering of its two main characters, which is never a good sign. Those last two episodes were merely forgettably generic, rather than aggressively unpleasant like the first three. The question becomes one of aspirations, since I think those first three episodes were closer to the flavor desired by the creators.
Meyer and Gosselaar rarely shift gears from "Aren't we rascals?" winking, so most of the other characters have to spend most of their times reacting with feigned exaggeration. Davis and Beauvais spend most of their screentime arms folded and heads shaking, in that manner that sitcom wives have been treating their irrepressible sitcom husbands for decades. You expect every episode to end with Damien waving his fist at the sky in impotent rage yelling "FRANKLIN AND BASH!" as everybody else stands to the side giggling and Franklin and Bash take a well-deserved high-five. Davis, Beauvais and Diamond are so much better than this.
With better writing, McDowell could have become a reason to tune in on his own. He's playing the sort of unpredictable, say-anything boss who has traditionally tormented Bret Harrison on short-lived shows, a sibling to Philip Baker Hall in "The Loop" or Ray Wise in "Reaper" (or even Christian Slater in "Breaking In"), men who are so rich and so powerful that they no longer need to abide by society's niceties. Instead, the writers don't have sufficient faith in the character's rambunctiousness, so he's too often left as an expositional device. The scene in the pilot when Stanton tells Franklin and Bash who they are, what there strengths are and why he's hiring them is as clumsy as TV writing gets. If you have to have a speech like that, it's basically a confession that you couldn't find any way to illustrate the same information in action. It's all frustrating to watch, since there's little doubt that McDowell has committed to this role with gung-ho enthusiasm. If the writing for his character were funny, McDowell would elevate it to greatness. Instead, he's elevating flatness as far as "minor amusement."
"Franklin & Bash" must have shot in a perfect moment in which a lot of TV projects were on hiatus, because in addition to Van Der Beek and Alexander, the guest star cast includes Natalie Zea, Mircea Monroe, Fred Willard and more.
It's to the credit of the TNT promotional department that the advertisements for "Franklin & Bash" have done a pretty good job of capturing the show's superficial glibness and its not-so-successful blending of boys-with-be-boys comedy and legal theatrics. If you've been amused by those ads, distributed liberally through TNT's NBA coverage all string, you may find "Franklin & Bash" to be an inoffensive summer diversion. Me, I didn't want to spend any more time with these guys than I had to and I'd recommend those looking for summertime scripted fun on TNT to wait a few weeks for the arrival of the even-more-exhaustively-promoted "Falling Skies." TNT is in the middle of a string of shows I haven't enjoyed -- "Rizzoli & Isles," "Memphis Beat," this one -- but a positive review for "Falling Skies" is just weeks away.
"Franklin & Bash" premieres Wednesday (June 1) at 9 p.m. on TNT.