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Amid ample minuses, NBC's Harry's Law has a big plus in Kathy Bates

Kathy Bates snarls and spars in Harry's Law. NBC photo

Premiering: Monday, Jan. 17th at 9 p.m. (central) on NBC
Starring: Kathy Bates, Nate Corddry, Brittany Snow, Aml Ameen
Produced by: David E. Kelley, Bill D'Elia

Over the top topicality and a plus-sized, 62-year-old lead actress are sequentially typical and atypical of a David E. Kelley legal drama.

Both are in abundance when the architect of Ally McBeal, The Practice and Boston Legal goes to court anew with NBC's Harry's Law, an improbably entertaining outing that initially finds Kathy Bates' character reclining at her office desk while smoking pot and bemoaning her fate.

"Patent law is as boring as a big bowl of steaming dog -- shut the door, Jenna," she beefs after her boss walks in on her. "I'd sooner look into a mirror and watch my teeth rot than do one more case involving patent law."

So Harriet "Harry" Korn is immediately fired. Walking the streets of downtown Cincinnati, she's then twice knocked flat on her back, first by a drug-addicted college student trying to commit suicide (he instead hits an awning first and lands on her) and then by a hot shot young attorney who hits her with his car.

Both Malcolm Davies (Aml Ameen) and Adam Branch (Nate Corddry) of course impulsively join the tart-tongued Harry's fledgling law firm, along with holdover assistant Jenna Backstrom (Brittany Snow). It's headquartered in an abandoned shoe store, prompting footwear aficionado Jenna to dub the new venture Harriet's Law and Fine Shoes. It's all perfectly plausible if you also believe that an obscure Alaska governor who says "You betcha" a lot can become an overnight sensation as a vice presidential candidate who now seems to be aiming at bigger game.

Actually, Sarah Palin probably won't be a big fan of Harry's Law. Producer Kelley tends to wear his left-of-center politics on his sleeve. This affords Harry a chance to fire away in Monday's premiere episode at courtroom adversary John Peyton (former ER regular Paul McCrane) after earlier dubbing him "an asshole" in defiance of rudderless NBC's usually persnickety standards & practices department.

Harry's spirited defense of Malcolm, facing prison time after his third arrest on drug possession charges, includes a recommendation that cocaine and the like be legalized, regulated and taxed. Peyton says that liberals would love that before she retorts, "The argument was first raised by conservative Republicans when the party had thinkers before it was hijacked by the likes of Rush Limbaugh -- a drug addict himself who somehow fared much better in our justice system. I wonder why."

In next Monday's second episode, Harry's back at it on behalf of a destitute 87-year-old neighborhood lady accused of robbing a liquor store owner at gunpoint. She first asked her congressman for "some of that stimulus money" but instead received a solicitation for a campaign donation, the defendant testifies before dubbing him an "asshole" while the judge tries to stifle a chuckle.

It's then Harry's turn. "We're the richest nation in the world," she tells jurors, "and one in seven of us lives in poverty. We're supposed to be the country that cares . . . Trust me, there's nothing you can do to this woman that the government hasn't already done."

By this time another dose of omnipresent mood music has kicked in. Harry's Law can be off-puttingly formulaic on that score.

Still -- and this is a basically overriding "still" -- the Oscar-winning Bates is mostly great fun to watch, whether snarling, empathizing or rolling with references to her bulk. She additionally packs a pistol, offing a rat in Episode 2 before sardonically adding, "Alert PETA."

Harry's Law also embraces its rundown neighborhood's diversity, with people of color mostly portrayed as decent-minded victims of circumstances. Kelley clearly doesn't care if this grates on some viewers. Nor is he afraid to cast an actress whose age is well beyond any network's "acceptable" demographic target.

Twelve episodes of Harry's Law have been completed, but ratings-starved NBC so far has given Kelley just a six-episode on-air commitment. The newcomer also will have to go against CBS' Hawaii Five-0 and ABC's Castle, a tough twosome for any show to tackle.

Whatever its fate, Harry's Law at least stirs the juices. Bates has long proven her worth as an actress who knows how to throw her weight around and doesn't mind having it double as a plot point. "Mostly soft tissue," she deadpans after her character avoids serious injury in both of those aforementioned, scene-setting mishaps.

She just might grow on you, too. But the odds are long and the climb will be steep.