Doubt: CBS’ Rudderless New Drama Doesn’t Know What It Wants to Be

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Doubt: CBS’ Rudderless New Drama Doesn’t Know What It Wants to Be

Gosh. I’m of two minds about this show, and I suspect it’s because it’s of two minds about itself. The initial episodes of Doubt feel like a ton of raw material that hasn’t quite found its voice. This slightly quirky legal drama centers on a boutique law firm that specializes in criminal defense. Katherine Heigl plays Sadie Ellis, a feisty lawyer who’s clearly falling in love with her client, Billy Bannon (Steven Pasquale), a heroic pediatric surgeon from a high-profile family who’s been recently accused of murdering his high school girlfriend like 25 years ago.

Meanwhile, there are all these other characters. Some seem like they wandered off the set of The Office. Others seem like they’re on hiatus from Law & Order, one or two didn’t make callbacks for How to Get Away with Murder and in a couple of cases it’s almost like a soap opera script page got wedged in with the sides. At any given time, we’re following at least three lawyers’ cases, plus inter-office politics, plus outside-the-office story lines: In short, it’s way complicated, but not for any discernible reason. Sometimes a ton of frantically paced noise and competing narratives work brilliantly; it was one of the things I loved about The West Wing. Here, it’s mostly just confusing.

The pluses: Elliott Gould! He’s perfect as the idealist senior partner, Isaiah. He doesn’t miss a trick, even though he’s been saddled with an insane office, a love interest who is serving a life sentence for something idealistic that went wrong (four episodes in, we’re still not quite clear what it is)—oh, and she’s also Sadie’s mom, and Isaiah raised Sadie after Mom went to the stony lonesome. He’s dealing with all that and he still rules. You get who he is, you understand him, you understand his mission. He’s a rock. Which is good, because this thing’s a little on the rudderless side.

Dulé Hill does a nice job as Sadie’s—what? Good cop? Evil twin? Sidekick? Conscience? I’m still not sure, but he’s the one generally reining it all in, and his argumentative banter with Sadie mostly hits a high mark. I think that relationship has potential to develop. Laverne Cox also delivers a consistently watchable performance as a thoughtful and impassioned defender of victims of social injustice. And you really do hope that Billy didn’t actually murder his girlfriend, because he’s adorbs and all altruistic and stuff. (As a bonus, the plot does give us plenty of oft-unexpected reasons to… well, Doubt him. That part’s fun.)

Minuses. Really inconsistent tone. It feels like a quirky comedy one minute and a melodrama the next. Then it’s a classic courtroom drama. Then there’s a sex scene that comes out of absolutely nowhere-I mean, narratively, it makes sense that the two characters hook up, but it’s such an abrupt tonal change that it’s almost as if it were spliced in from another series. (Not to mention it’s really rote and uninteresting.) Any of these paradigms could potentially work; there’s nothing wrong with the raw material. All of them at once? I don’t know how to feel.

Too much going on, too many characters, too many subplots: It’s kind of like the writers all skipped their ADHD meds, drank ten cups of coffee apiece, and then assigned each other random pages of each episode. We don’t actually need multiple scenes of Hill’s character in couples’ counseling, there doesn’t seem to be any purpose to pointing out that the office manager has quit and been replaced, and the World’s Worst Assistant only works if these guys are going to commit to a universe that looks a lot like a David Lynch anxiety dream or something Ricky Gervais cooked up. Sam McCoy wouldn’t have put up with her for three frames, and it’s not clear why we’re doing so.

Most of their cases are not very interesting, but we spent a lot of screen time on them anyway, and I think it’s in the service of character development of all these other lawyers who aren’t Katherine Heigl. It kind of feels like an improv scene study class some of the time, where the actors are just feeling their way through a situation they pulled out of a hat. The main case gets muddled in this weird signal-to-noise ratio, and it needs to be more focused because it’s the through line of the season.

Doubt has potential, but it isn’t using its resources as well as it could be. The whole thing feels foggy and speculative. There’s every chance the series will find its footing and become something unique. A lot of potentially great ideas are raised, all the actors are good, and it has a few great moments. But it’s not quite there yet.

Doubt premieres tonight at 10 p.m. on CBS.