USA’s Suits is set to begin its ninth and final season, leaving the network without one of its signature blue-sky series for the first time in nearly a decade. But the cable network has changed dramatically since Harvey Specter first hired Michael Ross, knowing he’d fabricated his law degree. In that time, USA has largely moved away from breezy shows like Suits, Covert Affairs, White Collar, and Royal Pains to focus more on dramatically heavier, critic-friendly content with award contenders like Mr. Robot and The Sinner. As such, the premiere of the Gina Torres-led Pearson finds the spinoff adjusting to a new kind of network paradigm, while still adhering to the kind of storytelling that made its mothership last for nine seasons.
As it turns out, the shift isn’t too difficult for the new series, which aims to position itself as a somewhat grittier political drama that nevertheless features many of the same Suits-like narrative beats. It helps that Pearson was set up by events in its sister series, which allows the show to hit the ground running and mostly eschew the need to explain the circumstances that led to Jessica Pearson’s departure from the law firm in the wake of losing her license to practice law. In some sense, that might limit the show’s ability to appeal to a wider audience of people who’ve never seen an episode of Suits, or stopped watching prior to the big non-Royal-Family-related upheaval in the show’s cast.
But Pearson is nothing if not adept at explaining its conceit without the use of flashbacks or lengthy info dumps. Instead, the show just drops mention of Jessica losing her law license every few minutes, just so it’s clear that she’s no longer a high-powered New York lawyer, but rather a fixer of sorts for a young Chicago mayor named Bobby Golec (Morgan Spector). To add intrigue to the mix, Jessica is also working with Keri Allen (Bethany Joy Lenz), the woman who worked to strip Jessica of her license. Constant reminders of who Jessica once was and the price she paid for her actions in a show that’s about to end aren’t enough to sustain a new series, however, and while Pearson could probably get by with some inter-office squabbling between its title character and the upstart who ended her career, the show thankfully has loftier ambitions. Those ambitions revolve primarily around Jessica’s integration into the world of politics, especially as they pertain to the Chicago’s political history that has given the Windy City a certain reputation.
To that extent, the Pearson series premiere plays a bit like an unconventional fish-out-of-water story, in that this particular fish is actually a shark rediscovering her bite. Torres is uniquely adept at intimidating even the most intimidating people on screen, and Pearson gets a lot of mileage out of watching her learn the ropes of a new profession while also contending with the fact that she can’t do everything she used to by herself anymore. That need to rely on others — in this case, Jessica finds an eager accomplice in Derrick Mayes (Eli Goree) — generates much of the first episode’s conflict, as Jessica works to save a local high school that’s the subject of a student-run hunger strike and the pet project of a somewhat shady alderman (Diandra Lyle) with ties to Mayor Golec.
Even in its Suits-like back-channeling of deals to try and save the school, end the hunger strike, and allow the mayor to save (political) face, ‘The Alderman’ is a busy episode. The hour does a workmanlike job of delivering the basics of the series’ formula, but it also sows the seeds of a more significant, overarching storyline with a flash forward plot device that seems to suggest Jessica is in mortal danger. To that end, Pearson distances itself from the world of Suits by something more meaningful than geography. The show’s tone is gloomier and antagonistic in a way that winds up isolating its title character and forcing her to contend with the fallout from her actions. Much of the premiere can be summed up with the phrase “that’s not how things are done here,” a version of which is uttered several times, usually in response to something Jessica has done, regardless of whether or not she gets results.
In crafting this post-Suits series, Pearson looks to the future and the past with equal measure. The result hits many of the same appealing beats, without being a rehash of the kinds of stories audiences have been privy to for years. It also demonstrates Torres’s ability to carry a show on her own, as she turns nearly every scene she’s in into an exciting push-pull for whatever ounce power might be up for grabs. That makes for a compelling series, one that will have to work harder as the season progresses to beef up its supporting characters, as scenes between Mayor Golec and Keri don’t quite yet have the same intensity as though involving Jessica and her ability to rankle everyone she comes in contact with.
That will give the series something to shoot for as the season progresses, and it might also determine the future of Pearson, as its various subplots involving governmental malfeasance, political payouts, and the mayor’s shady half-brother Nick D’Amato (Simon Kassianides) may only prove compelling the more Jessica gets involved. Wanting the show’s title character in every scene is a good problem to have, though it may prove taxing as the season wears on. In all, though, Pearson turns out to be a worthy successor to Suits, one that is more in keeping with where USA Network is headed.
Pearson continues next Wednesday with ‘The Superintendent’ @10pm on USA.