TV Review: FX’s “Partners,” Starring Kelsey Grammer and Martin Lawrence

Tonight, FX airs the first two episodes of “Partners,” a new legally themed sitcom starring television veterans Kelsey Grammer and Martin Lawrence as two unlikely law partners. Created by Robert L. Boyett and Robert Horn, “Partners” looks and feels like a tired sitcom of the eighties or nineties made modern only by occasional references to Twitter. Although the laugh track did its best to assist, “Partners” is not particularly amusing, a fault which must be assigned to the writers, as both Grammer and Lawrence have generated huge laughs in the past with much better material. Further, as you might imagine, “Partners” does not go out of its way to accurately depict the legal profession or the daily working lives of practicing attorneys. In the end, it’s a silly premise with a silly execution. Warning: Spoilers abound in the review below.

Grammer plays Allen Braddock, a 20 year veteran lawyer fired by his father from a prestigious Chicago law firm. We are told that he practices civil, criminal, and corporate law (and apparently, family law, as well, as we see) with a “success rate” of “89 percent.” His employment prospects are now grim,  as he is told by a former colleague that his father has poisoned the minds of the local bar such that “no respectable firm will hire [him] now.” Shortly after his termination, Braddock is summoned to a local courtroom by a judge seeking to sanction him for his abhorrent conduct during a past trial (which, incidentally, he won). The judge – who accuses Braddock of “misdirection, hiding behind technicalities, and something that was a very close cousin of jury tampering” – sanctions him by assigning him a handful of pro bono cases.

Meanwhile, Lawrence plays Marcus Jackson, an idealistic solo practitioner and community activist who has fallen on hard times. Now living with his mother and facing a devastating divorce, Jackson blames himself for the end of his twenty-two year marriage in part because he spends too much time at his law office. Choosing to represent himself in the divorce proceeding, Jackson has adopted a defeatist attitude and agreed to a settlement in which his wife will receive “70 percent of [his] assets and half of [his] law practice.” Appearing in court immediately after Braddock’s sanctions hearing, Jackson earns the sympathy of the judge, who continues the divorce hearing so that Jackson might obtain a more favorable settlement. After the hearing, Braddock and Jackson meet, and ultimately, Jackson agrees to retain Braddock to represent him in the divorce if Jackson will handle to pro bono cases previously assigned to Braddock. Thus begins the fractious relationship which ultimately leads to the two lawyers becoming law partners at the episode’s conclusion.

Much of the narrative is dedicated to Braddock and Jackson purportedly learning from each other as they trade insults about each other’s various differences. Rounding out the cast are Rory O’Malley as paralegal and law student Michael, Telma Hopkins as Jackson’s mother, Ruth, Edi Patterson as Jackson’s ambitious office manager and investigator Veronica, Danièle Watts as Jackson’s daughter, Laura, and McKaley Miller as Braddock’s annoyingly bratty step-daughter, Lizzie. At least in the first two episodes, we are not introduced to Jackson’s estranged wife or Braddock’s lawyer father.

Directed by Grammar, the pilot (titled “They Come Together”) primarily sets the stage to bring the two protagonists together. After Braddock agrees to represent Jackson, the two lawyers surreptitiously visit the residential quarters of a local church where Jackson’s wife volunteers and now live. (Some students of the law might call this “trespass.”).  They ultimately find themselves in Jackson’s wife’s bedroom – breaking and entering, anyone? – where they discover evidence of her infidelity. Thus, armed with this new evidence of an extramarital affair, Braddock is able to secure for Jackson a more equitable divorce settlement (and convince Jackson to move on from the experience). No one seems to question how the evidence was obtained or whether it was done so properly.

Directed by Joe Regalbuto, the second episode, “Let’s Have A Simple Gwedding,” centers around Braddock and Jackson’s pro bono assistance of a gay couple whose purportedly elite wedding planner has provided substandard services. Rather than crafting a demand letter threatening to sue the wedding planner for deceptive trade practices, Braddock and Jackson pose as a gay couple and “stage a fake consultation” in an effort to secure evidence of the wedding planner’s wrongdoing. When that approach fails, the two stage a fake wedding reception during which they find evidence that the wedding planner is “repurposing funeral arrangements,” recycling airplane food,  and pouring wine-in-a-box into far more expensive bottles. The lawyers obtain a refund for their clients and inform them that the wedding planner now faces “six months behind bars.” Apparently, all of this effort is provided by the firm at no cost to the clients, despite the fact that the clear evidence of fraud on the part of the wedding planner might lead to punitive damages or the recovery of attorneys fees under various deceptive trade practices and/or consumer protection statutes. So much for Braddock’s ability to generate revenue for the new firm!

Sadly, “Partners” appears to be another hackeyned sitcom with all the familiar tropes. Further, the writers and producers of “Partners” seem only to know of the practice of law from other bad televisions. Back in 2013, we here at Abnormal Use wondered why television programs so rarely depict discovery in civil litigation. In so doing, we speculated:

Is it that the writers of legal television shows themselves only know of our industry from other bad legal television shows?  Is it that the a program’s advisers do not have the breadth of legal experience to provide such anecdotes to the production?  Or is it that the traditional formula of a legal TV show is so well established and ossified that any deviation therefrom would simply require extra effort?

Really, both “cases’ depicted in the the episodes – Jackson’s divorce action and the potential claims against the wedding planner – cry out to be litigated. However, the writers prefer to treat the litigators as would-be detectives venturing out into the world to gather clues under false pretenses rather than as lawyers developing facts through a formal investigation or the discovery process. This is especially curious as the show has gone to great lengths to establish the existence of a competent non-lawyer investigator at the firm.

As a consequence, lawyer viewers may groan often as the narrative unfolds.

A few other notes on the show’s depiction of the legal process and the practice of law:

There are many, many “Lawyer As Witness” issues, meaning that Jackson and Braddock should be disqualified from representing their clients after becoming fact witnesses themselves.

How does Braddock determine that his “success rate” is “89 percent,” particularly when he practices across some many different areas?

How cynical a show is this that the judge “sanctions” Braddock by assigning him pro bono cases, as if pro bono cases exist as a deterrent to bad behavior?

The terms of Jackson’s divorce settlement made us wonder whether non-lawyers in Illinois are permitted to own a percentage of a law practice.

Shortly after Braddock and Jackson meet, Braddock advises: “It’s never a good idea to represent yourself in a personal case, you know that. You should have had another lawyer representing you all along. You’re too emotionally involved.” That’s actually good advice, but Braddock himself violating that very rule by appearing on his own behalf at a hearing during which he was sanctioned for misconduct.

“’Too far’ is how you win cases,” quips Braddock after Jackson advises him that is going, well, “too far.” And we wonder why litigation is so costly . . . .

The first two episodes of “Partners” air tonight on the FX Network at 9:00 p.m.

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