Some days you sit down intending to write about education, and what comes out instead is a ramble about how a legal drama needs to be more like professional wrestling.
So I discovered this show called Suits recently, and by “discovered” I mean I pulled a Christopher Columbus and found something millions of people already knew about.
As is my wont when I get really into a show, I started researching it, mostly how well it’s been received. I’m only a little over two seasons in at this point (the fifth season just started airing) but I was really shocked to see that pretty much everybody else in the world thought the second season was significantly better than the first.
Even though I disagree with that opinion, once I thought about it a bit I can’t really pretend I don’t understand why. The storytelling in the first is a bit… shit, really. Even though the show’s Wikipedia page says it had 12 episodes, thinking back on it I can only remember… two. There’s the first episode, explaining how the two main characters came to work together, and then there’s the one where they win their case because a random side character makes a casual statement that leads to an epiphany and they form a brilliant argument that legally probably makes very little sense.
It wasn’t exactly wildly original storytelling is what I’m saying. But it didn’t need to
be. What made the show work was not its plots, but the dynamic between the characters. The first episode sold us on the idea of a snappy, wisecracking legal super team: Harvey, the experienced, jaded lawyer who makes a living knowing what you’re going to do before you know, and Mike, the rookie who still wants to save the world and makes up for his lack of experience with the fact that he’s memorized every court case in history. Both the characters and actors played off of and balanced each other perfectly, and the fact that they never lost worked in the show’s favor because it made you want to be them. They were the legal system’s Superman…s. Supermans.
Moving into the second season, the show ditched the first’s episodic formula in favor of slow-developing, overarching story lines, which in theory was probably a wise move. However, as a result of this, the legal team that’d spent the first season as the smartest guys in the room spent basically the entire second season two steps behind the new antagonists.
In a lot of ways, it’s not hard to see the logic behind this decision. The idea of creating some drama by throwing our heroes a loss or two is not a bad one on its own. What was a bad idea was to keep those losses coming, consistently, for an entire season, because this really hurt the show in two unintended ways.
First, Harvey became absolutely insufferable. Harvey’s basically every cocky lawyer
character you’ve seen on every TV show ever. His brazenness works in season one because it’s absolutely well founded and he backs it up by being the best lawyer in town. But as soon as season two makes it clear there are better lawyers, his swagger immediately goes from charmingly abrasive to regular abrasive. He becomes that guy at every college party bragging about how awesome he was in high school.
Second, it showed us that these guys were not Supermen, they were losers. And this really hurts the drama at the end of the season. In one of the last episodes, Harvey gets a lawsuit he needs to win to protect the future of his firm. As soon as this storyline was brought up, I was fed up with it. The writers had just spent the better part of a year convincing me that Harvey couldn’t win a case to save his life. Now suddenly I was supposed to believe he could win one to save his firm?
And this is where the show needed to take a page from the best booked stories in professional wrestling.
I’ve mentioned my love of professional wrestling before and I’ve caught flak for it in the past. I will freely admit the claim that it’s little more than a soap opera is fairly accurate. But I love it because when it’s well done, it tells the most basic story of a hero overcoming incredible odds better than any other medium I’m familiar with.
Because it’s scripted, and more show than sport, wrestling often gets unfairly stigmatized for its storytelling. But even though the stories are basic, making them compelling is more difficult than it might initially seem. Push a face too often or too hard and fans get tired of him winning all the time. That’s been John Cena’s problem for years since he’s been WWE’s top (sometimes only) babyface for a decade.
However, fail to book a face to look appropriately dominating and fans lose interest quickly. In the run up to WrestleMania 31, the WWE had a laundry list of booking problems, but their biggest by far was that their heel champion, Brock Lesnar, had been getting pushed in exciting, high-octane matches in which he would beat people within an inch of their lives, while Roman Reigns, the babyface and (alleged) contender was booked in slow, plodding matches that saw him struggle to beat second-tier opponents. No one cared about his shot at Lesnar, because, in storyline, Lesnar should have kicked Reigns’ teeth in from bell to bell. The writers never gave the fans a reason to care.
I still really enjoyed season two of Suits. Mike’s development was still very well done, and I had enough positive positive feelings about the characters
from season one to stay invested. Even so, I still can’t get over how much better it could have been had they “booked” Harvey appropriately; had they just gotten their WWE on a bit more. If I’m going to care about a character’s big case, first I have to believe he can win it. And by the same token, someone with the swagger of the Rock can’t back it up with the winning percentage of Dolph Ziggler.