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Fairly Legal gives USA another soft touch

Ex-Dallas Cowboys ch'leader Sarah Shahi fronts cast of Fairly Legal. NBC photo
Premiering: Thursday, Jan. 20th at 9 p.m. (central) on USA
Starring: Sarah Shahi, Michael Trucco, Virginia Williams, Baron Vaughn
Produced by: Michael Sardo, Steve Stark

A light breeze blows through all of USA's drama series.

The network's slogan, "Characters Welcome," might just as well be accompanied by "As Long As They Brightly Banter."

Fairly Legal, premiering Thursday with an extended 75-minute episode, sticks steadfastly to that formula. Its lead character, litigator turned mediator Kate Reed (Sarah Shahi), even keeps her bounce while at gunpoint in a convenience store robbery. She eventually talks both sides into a compromise, with the would-be bad guy contentedly walking away with an armload of beer and beef jerky while the store owner puts away his baseball bat.

Hey, it's working. Led by No. 3-ranked Royal Pains, USA has six of cable's top 20 scripted dramas among advertiser-coveted 18-to-49-year-olds. The network's nominal big brother, NBC, sorely wishes it could say as much. USA succeeds almost effortlessly while NBC keeps flopping.

Shahi herself is a veteran of two NBC ratings duds -- the critically praised Life and the not so critically praised Teachers. The former Dallas Cowboys cheerleader, born in Euless, TX as Aahoo Jahansouz, now is likely to live long and prosper as Fairly Legal's pacesetter. She plays this lead role with assurance and aplomb, elevating the entire enterprise in the process. Fairly Legal in a sense is Shahi's coming out party as an actress capable of toting the load. Not that USA requires any unduly heavy lifting. Another tagline for the network might be, "Watchable But Not Exceptional" -- with the arguable exception of Burn Notice.

Kate is first seen on her San Francisco bay houseboat, waking from an unintended sleepover with estranged husband Justin Patrick (Michael Trucco). Their prickly relationship also is complicated by the fact that he's an up-and-coming assistant district attorney who's regularly in a position to help her wade through various legal entanglements.

On another front, Kate spars with oft-imperious stepmother Lauren Reed (Virginia Williams), who belatedly married her recently deceased daddy and now is determined to keep his troubled law firm afloat. Lauren looks to be just a few years older than Kate, which also complicates matters. The late Teddy Reed, whose ashes rest in a majestic looking urn, apparently was randy as well.

The premiere episode is stocked with a goofy mediation case tied to an impending wedding and a more serious one involving a hit-and-run incident with several twists and turns. Graybeards Ken Howard (The White Shadow) and Gerald McRaney (fresh from the NBC flop Undercovers) drop in as guest stars. Both play it very stern while Kate strives to keep her sunny side up.

A fourth regular character, Kate's "geek-chic" assistant Leonardo Prince (Baron Vaughn), looks to be a nice fit in this mix. Kate also has an occasionally seen brother who quit the law firm to bond with his new baby daughter. Hence the ever-present stroller.

Fairly Legal (initially titled Facing Kate) has an initial 10-episode order, all of which are completed. It's likely to run a good deal longer than that on a network that knows what it's all about. Did we mention that Kate's frequent cell phone callers are identified as characters from The Wizard of Oz? That's another light touch typical of the overall USA approach. Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead and Sons of Anarchy need not apply here. They'd only soil the sheets.

GRADE: B-minus