‘Notorious’ Review: ABC Legal Drama Tries to Please All, Ends Up a Mess

Hokey, over-the-top series shows that the Shondaland magic is hard to replicate


Whether you believe we’re living in a time of “peak TV,” in which content overload will supposedly destroy the industry, or whether you think there can never be too much programming, one thing is for sure: If you want to sell a show to an audience, you’d better make damn sure you catch their attention.

Using that logic, ABC’s new drama “Notorious” can perhaps be forgiven for trying to hit every dramatic trope possible in a 40-odd minute span. There’s the high-pressure TV newsroom and the successful producer Julia George (Piper Perabo) who is tasked with getting all the big guests. There’s high-profile lawyer Jake Gregorian (Daniel Sunjata) who goes above and beyond for his sketchy clients. There’s a billionaire social media wiz kid Oscar (Kevin Zegers) who may be a murderer. And then there’s a sexually driven and aging host, a steamy secret affair, a whodunit mystery and finally a weird friendship between the producer and lawyer that comes across as semi-authentic, mostly manipulative and confusing as hell.

Sometimes the problem with trying to pander to all types of viewers is that you wind up with just a big old mess, and that’s exactly what happens here. Rather than taking the time to flesh out the actual relationship between Julia and Jake and explain why audiences are supposed to care, the friendship is taken at face value after an “unexpected” twist during a live newscast. Sure, ABC marketing has made a big hoopla about the series being based on the real-life friendship between former “Larry King Live” producer Wendy Walker and celebrity lawyer Mark Geragos, but within the context of the actual show it’s hard to understand why anyone should be invested. If anything, their manipulative behavior towards each other makes them overall less likable as characters.

Add in flashy editing, quick-paced dialogue and a sense that this show is trying to match the “Scandals” and “How To Get Away With Murders” of the world, and it’s easy to see why ABC scheduled this one for the Shondaland precincts of Thursday nights. Unfortunately while that tone tends to work for Shondaland series, it feels hokey and over-the-top here. These characters are successful but self-important, a dangerous combination when you’re trying to lure an audience for the long haul. Smacking glossy editing on top of that only intensifies the problem. Not everyone can be so slick – or likes seeing characters who are.

Then there’s the ongoing serialized element of the murder case Jake is involved in. While long-form storytelling coupled with a case-of-the-week format is nothing new, there are good and bad ways to do it. Unfortunately “Notorious” falls into the latter camp. Rather than separating the whodunit plot from Jake’s personal character story and then seeing how one affects the other, the writers opted to integrate the two by laying out a complicated personal history between Jake and the victim. On its own that would have been fine, but there’s layer upon layer upon layer of deceit happening all at once; it’s like the writers are just throwing ideas on a wall to see what sticks. Nothing about this pilot feels finely tuned or carefully constructed.

It’s a shame, actually, given the great chemistry between Perabo and Sunjata in the first place. Their platonic relationship is the reason to watch, which is perhaps why the aforementioned marketing team is honing in on it so closely. There are a lot of missed opportunities in the pilot to really dig into that relationship and find out what makes it work. Unfortunately for now that’s  lost in all of the many other subplots going on, making “Notorious” feel like watered-down, TV-lite fare.

“Notorious” premieres Thursday on ABC.