left to right: Sexy Lewis SC, Josephine Newton, Josephine's good guy activist husband
Australian audiences love legal drama. Law students need it. We all fancy ourselves as intelligent as Mike Ross, as principled as Janet King and, yes, as suave as Harvey Spector. And in Rake we enjoy both the voyeuristic pleasure of watching Cleaver Greene destroy his career and the simple genius of his skills of persuasion.
In Newton’s Law, I’m not sure what we’re meant to see.
As the Daily Review points out, there are no massive faults in the narrative. I agree. The issue is that there’s nothing to love.
Josephine Newton is a suburban lawyer with her very own ragtag group of misfits for employees and clientele consisting largely of “flashers and jaywalkers in the backblocks of nowheresville”. It’s been 15 years since she left the bar to give birth to her daughter – literally, she was having contractions in the Supreme Court. On the urging of sexy old mate from uni now turned sexy three piece suit-wearing barrister, Lewis, she returns.
Did it just get hot in here?
What should be an exciting return to the bar both for Josephine and the viewer somehow falls flat. The only evidence we have of Josephine’s competence is the insistence of all the other characters that she is and the contrasting incompetence of her sister and the senior counsel she briefs at the beginning of the episode.
This appears to be a broader issue for the show – characterisation through signifiers. We know Josephine’s husband is a good guy activist because he wears flannel and has a beard. We know Sexy Lewis is a great barrister because he’s confident, wears a three-piece suit and has the right haircut. We know he’s sexy, well, because he is and Josephine clearly thinks so.
And then there’s the legal world the show portrays – it doesn’t ring true. The legal profession, and certainly the bar, have a long way to go when it comes to gender equality. But it isn’t 1975 anymore and women showing up at a chambers’ reception aren’t assumed to be secretaries.
Other aspects of this legal world are startlingly familiar: accomplished female lawyer returns to practice and has to compete with cocky privileged upstart. The Good Wife, anyone?
The perpetrator of the quaint sexist faux pas appears to be a recurring character, along with petty criminal and all-around handy man Johnny and Josephine’s bumbling paralegal Helena. I’m reserving comment on Helena in particular. As a woman of colour it was a pleasant surprise to see myself reflected in TV’s legal world and I’m optimistic. But it didn’t bode well that Josephine had to save the legally trained though disqualified Helena from unemployment (with a shiny job at a top law firm) and from employment (at an Indian restaurant of all places).
sizing up the competition
My favourite character is the so-far trivialised Claire – a slick barrister with pin-straight hair, impeccable tailoring and her phone glued to her hand. Sizing her up in the lift on Day 1, Josephine spots a killer pair of pumps as well. Claire doesn’t size up Josephine in the lift on because Claire’s confidence comes from within not from comparison. Claire doesn’t give a fuck about whether or not she’s on the case because Claire doesn’t care about the politics of a workplace, she cares about the work.
Claire is the hero we didn’t know we needed.
Josephine is the one we’ve got.
Here's hoping Miranda Tapsell swoops in to save the show and make it a crowd favourite. No sight of her so far.
Over the next few weeks it will be interesting to see whether the show decides to be a quirky comedy, embracing abovementioned rag-tag team of employees and potential Sexy Lewis love interest or if it chooses the serious drama route with serious ethical conflicts, persuasive legal arguments (and potential Sexy Lewis love interest). I’m not entirely sure which I would prefer but seeing as Janet King isn’t back for a while, I’ll probably watch it either way.
Newton’s Law airs every Thursday at 8:30 p.m. on the ABC. You can catch up on ABC iView.