Fans of the legal-biz show Suits, which premieres its eighth season on July 18 (USA Network, 9 p.m. ET), are in for some big changes.
At the end of last season Meghan Markle, who played openhearted paralegal Rachel Zane, left the show to marry England’s Prince Harry in May (as about 30 million American viewers swooned). Onscreen her character rode off into the sunset with handsome young attorney Mike Ross (Patrick J. Adams). So with beloved Rachel and Mike gone, Suits needs to take advantage of the royal hubbub and get some of its creative mojo back — fast, since the award-winning hit's audience is down from 4.6 million to about one million.
To replace Markle, USA hired someone almost the opposite: Katherine Heigl, 39, the only Emmy-winning Grey's Anatomy cast member.
Why the Markle-Heigl switch is a huge gamble
Suits, a once exhilaratingly clever drama of backstabbing and loyalty at a corporate law firm, deserves and deeply needs a recharge. Early on, it was fun, exciting and kinda sweet to see Mike, a guy with a fake law degree, and his bullish mentor Harvey (top-billed Gabriel Macht) — a man of secrets himself — take down white-collar baddies while bonding father-son style. But after seven years, all of the characters' fast talking (and talking and talking) and scheming to rule the roost have begun to curdle. Their firm, currently Specter Litt, has changed names as many times as Liz Taylor. And the show has also lost electric Gina Torres (Mrs. Laurence Fishburne in real life), who laid down some scruples as Harvey's partner Jessica Pearson, but is headed for a spinoff series.
What Heigl brings to the Suits party
Season eight starts with Harvey striving to remain top partner, as is Rachel’s dad, the cunning Robert Zane (The Wire's Wendell Pierce). Enter Heigl as Zane's tough gal Friday Samantha Wheeler, a bold fixer. Instead of male buddy Mike, Zane meets Heigl’s belligerent Sam (why aren’t mighty women ever named Alice or Sally?) as she’s throwing punches in a boxing ring. Instant conflict! The pair’s banter ("Who the hell are you?" "Don’t you walk away from me!" "Kiss my ass!") doesn’t exactly channel Tracy and Hepburn.
Heigl is intriguing, with TV-princess charisma, and her public persona fits a ferocious character. She's famous as the insta-star of Grey's Anatomy and the movie Knocked Up and notorious for bad-mouthing the titanic producers of those hits. Her big mouth hurt her career, and she needs the Suits comeback she may yet pull off. But she needs to throw more sparks as well as punches, and she may get the chance since it's hinted that Samantha "Don’t Call Me Sam!" Wheeler has some issues herself. If she gets more complicated and interesting ASAP, millions of Suits viewers may tune back in.
What's good about Suits Season 8
Amid the familiar revolving-door politics and dialogue about client billing, Suits includes some fresh moments. There's a mini-primer for these #MeToo times as ambitious assistant Katrina (Amanda Schull), Rachel's old buddy, tells a male partner, "You know I care for you deeply in a completely asexual manner," and the guy (Rick Hoffman's Louis Litt character) reciprocates. And a subplot about the firm needing to lay off workers nicely surprises, with costars Sarah Rafferty (as thankless COO Donna), Schull and Hoffman all contributing to a welcome reminder that having good souls in the workplace actually benefits the bottom line.
The bottom line here is that, despite Heigl's starry, controversial résumé and considerable dramatic potential, Duchess Markle's sparkle is missed. But she does make an appearance – in a lovingly held photo.