For The People Doesn't Feel Like Shondaland, But It Is Fun

Shonda Rhimes has dominated television for more than a decade, starting with the sudsy, feminist trojan horse that is Grey’s Anatomy. Since the trials and tribulations of Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) began in 2005 — 2005! — we’ve learned what to expect from a Shondaland series: sexy people doing sexy things, incredibly well. These sexy, sexy people can be doctors and fixers and students and con-artists, but the two things that unify this wide universe of characters, all produced by Rhimes, are their boundless talent and extremely soapy lives.
ABC’s latest Shondaland series, legal procedural For The People, premiering Tuesday, March 13, only follows one of these rules. The up-and-coming lawyers of the brand new series are as gorgeous and brilliant as you would expect, but their world doesn’t have the heady melodrama of Scandal’s most recent seasons or the never-ending impossibilities of Grey Sloan. Instead, For The People, about the upstart young public defenders and federal prosecutors of the Southern District Of New York (SDNY) Federal Court, feels like a world you might recognize, and that’s what makes it so promising.
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The drama, created by Scandal scribe Paul William Davies, owes a lot of its success to the women grounding the series. It was initially difficult to imagine Britt Robertson, who was right at home as the charmingly impertinent and headstrong heart-on-her-sleeve heroine of Netflix’s Girlboss, as a traditional Shondaland lead — especially when you remember Robertson was tapped to replace original star, American Horror Story alum Britne Oldford. Yes, Robertson can speak as quickly as Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) and pull off any barb as sharply as Meredith, but a Shonda lead also tends to have a quiet, restrained intensity. No one would call the fearless Britt Robertson restrained.
Then you meet public defender Sandra Bell (Robertson), who serves as our entry point into For The People, and it all makes sense. Sandra is fiercely intelligent, unapologetically argumentative, hugely ambitious, and fueled by her big heart. She can be set off by as little as four words, which is a tendency used against her in the pilot. Sandra is just as likely to comb through dozens of boxes of evidence to defend her young client against terrorism charges as she is to vehemently protect a surprise pro bono client from a slum lord and nearly come to tears while doing it.
The other two young women who ground People are Sandra’s best friend Allison Adams (Leftovers alum Jasmin Savoy Brown) and type-A force of nature Kate Littlejohn (Susannah Flood). Allison makes us question what happens when a determined woman’s career is directly at odds with the kind of long-term relationship everyone expects will turn into something Serious. As usual for Shondaland, the answer isn’t the painless one.
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While Allison is a fitting scene partner for Sandra, expect Kate Littlejohn to be the breakout character here. Every single one of her scenes has an incomparable spark that is evident right out of the gate with every withering gaze and flick of her highlighter. Within the first 10 minutes of the series, suffer-no-fools Kate drops truths like, “I don’t want to be the help desk for every man in this office too lazy to look something up for himself.”
Though most series would be as careless as Seth Oliver (Ben Rappaport), the lazy man who gets that succinct dragging from Kate, and pose the lawyer as the villain of this story, People doesn’t make that mistake. The drama puts in a lot of work to make a rules obsessive like Kate as much of a lovable hero as sweet Jay Simmons (Wesam Keesh), whom Kate eviscerates in court, Sandra, and Allison. Second episode “Rahowa,” is an especially compelling treat, as we get to see Sandra and Kate go head-to-head over a massive case. The results unveil the kind of humanity “difficult” women like Kate rarely get on TV.
While viewers might immediately root for Kate and resident heartthrob Leonard Knox (Regé-Jean Page) to become an item, I’m a far bigger fan of the not-so-icy prosecutor ending up with Jay. As early installments prove, Kate is at her best when she’s forced to share the screen with the supposed yin to her own yang.
If you can’t tell, For The People is far more focused on character growth than twisty plot moments, which puts it in a completely different category from the remaining Shondaland fare. In the first 10 minutes of Scandal, the phrase “gladiators in suits” is used, Huck’s shady past is brought up, and a rich boy covered in blood pops up in the Olivia Pope & Associates offices mumbling about his dead girlfriend. How To Get Away With Murder opens with a fiery college bacchanal that quickly devolves into four students fighting over the best way to hide the body of someone they just murdered.
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People, on the other hand, kicks off with Sandra and the rest of the cast sitting outside the hallowed room where they will take their oath for the SDNY federal court, a.k.a. the “Mother Court.” From there, the season premiere follows the typical beats of a procedural. People get assignments, things go awry, juries hand out judgements, and our lawyers celebrate or lick their wounds. It’s a familiar journey with enough timely knots, snappy dialogue, and surprising, but not impossible, resolutions to make for an fun hour of television.
For The People may never rewrite the procedural playbook, but it is probably the legal show millennial women stressed out by the either primetime TV’s easily-maddening soaps or real-life’s maddening news can enjoy will sipping an Olivia Pope-approved glass of wine.
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