Imagine a thriller about a young lawyer, near the top of his law-school class, who takes a job at a seemingly genteel firm — for a huge salary — only to find out that it’s a front for the mob, and that every lawyer who tries to leave ends up dead.
He works with the FBI to get out, turning over documents to take down the firm, then goes into hiding with his wife.
Now imagine it’s 10 years later. The lawyer, older, more world-weary and now with a daughter, emerges from witness protection, reclaims his real name and opens up a storefront law practice. He gets an offer to start an association with another law firm, which also seemingly offers everything he needs. Now imagine that this new firm is up to no good too.
Finally, try to imagine that you haven’t seen this before.
The “imagine” device is from another John Grisham novel-turned-movie, “A Time to Kill” (Matthew McConaughey uses it in his closing argument in the film). But the scenario above both describes what happens in “The Firm,” which premieres at 9 p.m. ET Sunday (Jan. 8) on NBC — and one of the chief problems with it.
If “The Firm” were starting as an original story about Mitch McDeere (Josh Lucas, in his first TV work in more than a decade) coming out of witness protection after making a bad mistake earlier in his life, it might work better than it does. But it’s not — it picks up the story from Grisham’s 1991 best-seller (or more accurately, the 1993 movie based on the novel that starred Tom Cruise) after a decade (although it’s the present day, not, say, 2002). And because it comes with that baggage, there’s kind of a disconnect between the story we know and what we see on screen now.
It’s not just that Lucas (“The Lincoln Lawyer,” “Glory Road”) doesn’t look like Tom Cruise, or that his assistant Tammy (Juliette Lewis) is no longer a southerner. Lucas is actually quite good as Mitch, as is Molly Parker (“Deadwood”) as his wife, Abby.
The issue lies more with the mechanics of the plot. Sunday’s two-hour pilot opens with Mitch on the run in Washington while several men chase him. He evades them long enough to call Abby and tell her, “It’s happening again.”
The bulk of the opener, though, takes place six weeks earlier and is a pretty by-the-book courtroom story about Mitch being appointed to a murder case involving a 14-year-old boy. Mitch is also hustling to make a civil case and has another criminal case on his docket, assisted by his brother Ray (Callum Keith Rennie, “The Killing”) and smart-mouthed assistant Tammy.
He’s struggling to handle the load as a one-man firm — so he’s intrigued when a high-end firm offers to bring him in to head a new criminal practice. Mitch is understandably wary, given his previous firm experience, but he works a deal to be associated with the firm but not entirely absorbed by it. And then, of course, we find out that this place is up to no good as well.
At which point you might be saying, “Really? Come on.” Thrillers routinely ask the audience to make sizable leaps (“24’s” CTU having the worst background screening in the universe, for instance), but the pilot of “The Firm” doesn’t offer enough of a hook elsewhere to make the idea that Mitch would somehow stumble into another conspiracy plausible.
In our interview with Lucas, he talked about some of the dark places Mitch may have to go over the course of the show’s season. What he was describing sounded pretty intriguing, and more like a show we’d be interested in watching. It’s possible “The Firm” could grow into that, but it’s not really there yet.