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'For the People': 'Grey's Anatomy' With Lawyers

The new soapy drama features idealistic young attorneys and tough grownup mentors

FOR THE PEOPLE - "Pilot" - Set in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York (a.k.a. "The Mother Court"), the new Shondaland series follows six talented young lawyers working on opposite sides of the law and handling the most high-profile and high-stakes federal cases in the country. These lawyers will be put to the test both personally and professionally as their lives intersect in and out of America's most prestigious trial court, on "For The People," TUESDAY, MARCH 13 (10:00-11:00 p.m. EDT), on The ABC Television Network. (ABC/Nicole Wilder)
SUSANNAH FLOOD, BEN RAPPAPORT, REGE-JEAN PAGE, VONDIE CURTIS-HALL
First row, from left: Susannah Flood, Ben Rappaport and Regé-Jean Page stand before Vondie Curtis-Hall, who plays a judge on "For the People."
Nicole Wilder/ABC

Where to Watch: ABC

Premiere: March 13, 10 p.m./9 p.m. CT

Stars: Jasmin Savoy Brown, Hope Davis, Britt Robertson, Anna Deavere Smith

Break out the red wine! Shonda Rhimes, 48, the hot auteur of Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder, whose characters gain strength from vino, has executive-produced yet another smart, stylish drama. As she pours a Bordeaux to celebrate her rich new deal making shows for Netflix, Rhimes leaves ABC with the delightfully lively For the People, created by Stanford-trained lawyer turned Scandal writer Paul William Davies. He’s great at making legal minutiae entertaining while orchestrating colorfully soapy complications à la Grey’s Anatomy.

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When the show’s gorgeous newbie attorneys at America’s second-most important legal mecca — the U.S. Southern District Court of New York, aka the "Mother Court" — rattle off cases, they’re real and interesting, with actual implications for the issues they tackle, from terrorism to minimum sentencing to opioids. The series has some of the  appeal  of Law & Order or NCIS (the No. 1 show among viewers over 65), but the cases aren’t so cut and dried. Things take unexpected turns, you’re sometimes forced to see issues from both sides, and the vibe is way more spontaneous and emotionally real than those procedural shows. It’s also fast and funny, even when it’s touching and insightful.

Better yet, it’s a wonderful show for grownups, because the ambitious kids (three prosecutors and three public defenders) get trained in the opening episode by intimidating mentors, including some of the finest actors on the planet: Hope Davis, 52, as the federal public defender; Angels in America’s Golden Globe winner Ben Shenkman, 49, as the chief of the U.S. Attorney's Office; and Anna Deavere Smith, 67, as the omniscient clerk of court you do not want to cross. As Law & Order vet Vondie Curtis-Hall, 67, welcomes the whippersnappers to “the oldest, most prestigious, highest-profile trial court in America,” he warns: "Some of you are not worthy. But for those of you who are, your time here will be the highlight of your career.”

Expect good things for the careers of the young, less established actors. The central characters seem to be public defenders Sandra (Britt Robertson) and her wealthy roommate, Allison (Jasmin Savoy Brown), who loudly echo the Sandra Oh/Ellen Pompeo relationship on Grey’s Anatomy. They struggle through professional and soapy personal entanglements with tough-as-titanium young prosecutors Regé-Jean Page, Ben Rappaport and Susannah Flood ( whose  ruthlessly hyper-rational character is the early standout in the acting competition that lurks beneath the characters’ court battles).

Some critics snipe that For the People is  unoriginal, since it’s so close to the Shonda Rhimes formula that has taken over broadcast TV and that is about to transform Netflix, whose shows often lack Rhimes’ propulsive efficiency.  Why,  it’s just Grey’s Anatomy for the legal set! But there’s a reason the Rhimes formula is successful, and there’s enough that’s fresh in For the People to make it worth checking out.