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‘The Firm’ and John Grisham’s FBI

By Alyssa Rosenberg  

"‘The Firm’ and John Grisham’s FBI"

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I had been skeptical of the idea of reintroducing Mitch McDeere, John Grisham’s Hero Lawyer from The Firm, as the main character in a television series. Grisham’s quite a plotter, even though his prose is pedestrian to the max and his characters are all pretty much the same person, but most of his narratives are movie-length, and I’m not sure how well they’d translate into the longer arc of a season without serious exposition—though I guess that’s what co-writers are for. Plus, I like the idea of Mitch and his wife Abby hanging out in the Caribbean, and maybe opening up a private detective agency they run off a boat or something (USA Network, call me! It’s the perfect idea for your Fairly Legal reboot!) But the more I’ve thought about it, and with the news that Josh Lucas is going to play McDeere, a role I think is perfect for him, I’m slowly coming around on the idea.

I think, though, it’ll be important for the show to figure out what role the FBI is going to play in it. My understanding is that the show catches up with McDeere 10 years later as he and his family leave witness protection, though it’s not clear if he’ll be doing what he explicitly didn’t want to do in the novel and testifying against his old colleagues at law practice that was a money-laundering operation for a Chicago mafia family.

Grisham’s perspective on the FBI is mixed. Hugely powerful and long-serving FBI director F. Denton Voyles is, to a certain extent, far more of a hero than any of Grisham’s blank men in beautiful suits. Voyles plays key roles in The Pelican Brief and The Client, as well as The Firm. As Jeffrey Jay Folks notes in his Southern Writers at Century’s End, Voyles puts Darby Shaw’s life in danger in The Pelican Brief, and in The Client and The Firm, he is ill-served, and in one case even betrayed, by incompetent subordinates. Grisham’s characters often end up outthinking the FBI agents who are supposed to help them but are ineffective at tradecraft or strategy. But Voyles is able to see the long game, and even if things don’t go as planned at every step in the process, he’s never utterly deluded or off-base.

He’s still human, though — Voyles is emotionally invested in cases, and he doesn’t think he’s God, unlike Teddy Maynard, the creeptastically manipulative CIA director who appears in a number of Grisham’s books. Grisham seems more comfortable with officials who have accumulated a lot of power in a domestic space, rather than a foreign one, which is interesting given how much he appears to believe the law is manipulatable, sometimes in the interests of justice and sometimes in direct contravention of it. I’ll be curious to see how much of that perspective makes it into the show. Grisham’s skepticism about the efficacy of the justice system and the people who work in it is a departure from much of what we see on network TV. It’s not always the most socially critical one (though he’s very hard on overcriminalization of homelessness in The Street Lawyer), but that skepticism is useful.

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