“I figured you didn’t need a title. You’re Jessica Pearson.”
Pearson knows that the only selling point really needed for the series is “Starring Gina Torres.” Hell, Suits—the show from which Pearson and Torres’ titular Jessica Pearson are spun off—knew that, even though she wasn’t the lead. In fact, that’s exactly why there’s a Jessica Pearson/Gina Torres spinoff in the first place. On Suits, it was always apparent that the show had a heavy-hitter in Gina Torres, but based on the nature of the beast—as the majority of the series featured the two leads hiding a major secret from her, their boss—she was often on the sidelines, with very little material for her to sink her teeth into. But hey, she wore the hell out of a suit, far better than anyone else on the cast. (Pearson knows that too, which makes it especially jarring—and on one specific occasion, that’s intentional—to see the titular character actually in casual wear.) As Suits went on (it’s now in its ninth and final season) it only became more egregious that her role wasn’t any bigger, while still understandable given the nature of the show. Thus, the plans for the spinoff came to be. (After she left the show during Season Six and her follow-up series ABC’s The Catch was canceled, that is.)
Originally titled Second City—a pun playing off Jessica’s move from New York to Chicago but also kind of suggesting a far more-lighthearted show than it is—Pearson follows Jessica as she starts a new chapter in her life with her live-in boyfriend Jeff Malone (played by D.B. Woodside since Suits Season Four) and her new career as the unofficial “right hand” to first-term Chicago Mayor Bobby Novak (Morgan Spector). (The more common term for this role would actually be “fixer,” but it’s one that Jessica hates, so the series goes through great pains to forgo a label altogether, most likely to curb any more Scandal comparisons than there already are.)
Pearson’s first couple of episodes clumsily dance around what led to this new dynamic, but it’s actually better explained in Suits’ Season Seven finale/Pearson’s backdoor pilot, “Good-Bye,” where Jessica’s Chicago law license is taken away. (During Suits Season Six, Jessica had already been disbarred in New York due to a different act of revenge.) Jessica’s final case as a lawyer (alongside her Suits protégé, Harvey Specter) is a class-action lawsuit against the city, regarding a public housing development that’s about to be destroyed by very corrupt real estate developer Pat McGann (Wayne Duvall). The twist? Jessica took the case to save her previously unseen and unknown extended family from ending up on the streets. As Jessica went further down the rabbit hole for this case, she quickly began to uncover the seediness at play, even ending up in the crosshairs of a Chicago cop who clearly served a much larger master, Nick D’Amato (Simon Kassianides).
As a way to get Jessica to drop the case and to stop going after both himself and McGann, Novak offered her a seat at the table, as the person who fixes his problems (of which there are many). This is not a relationship built on trust or mutual respect: For Novak, it’s purely out of survival and keeping Jessica’s nose out of his business with McGann, and for Jessica, it’s the old impossible trope of attempting to fix immense corruption from within. The icing on the political cake is when Jeff’s sources at the Department of Justice suggest that Novak (and the company he keeps) is the type of politician who has no problem disappearing people who get in his way, which could include the fearless-but-somewhat-in-over-her-head Jessica Pearson.
For fans of Suits, the change in tone that comes with Pearson will no doubt be jarring, but it offers a more substantial role for Torres in a more fleshed-out version of Jessica. (And yes, there are someSuits references and a couple of cameos, but it’s nothing major that affects the flow of the show or makes for a major crossover event.) For people who aren’t fans of Suits (or haven’t watched in years), it’s not necessary viewing for Pearson, which serves as a standalone vehicle on its own. And if you like Pearson, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll like Suits. Suits is a legal drama, Pearson is a political one. It’s not abnormal for a series’ spinoff to be more serious or mature, but hopefully, no one goes into Pearson expecting to find a sliver of that sense of humor that defined Suits, a series that did begin during USA Network’s Characters Welcome era, after all. (Although, if you do want some fun with your Pearson viewing—especially in the first half of the season—drink every time the show has a character say some variation of the classic line, “You’re not from around here,” to or about Jessica.)
I’ve written before about the larger problem that is USA’s brand identity in a post-Characters Welcome world. Especially since not every new show is a critical masterpiece like Mr. Robot or even The Sinner, despite very clearly attempting to copy the aesthetic and prestige tone of such shows. (The only reason Pearson’s aggressively dark, yellow and brown tint is acceptable is that the series is attempting to pass Los Angeles off for Chicago. Without the color filters—and the exteriors actually shot in Chicago—it would be an exercise in futility.) Pearson is going for a grittier, more noir approach to things, and it actually makes sense that Pearson would be a more serious series than Suits: While Jessica regularly proved she was just as in the loop when it came to the pop culture references and quips/zingers as any other character in Suits, those things were also never actually an integral part of her world. They were just reminders or even surprises to those other characters that she had a lot more up her sleeve. Pearson has her having to start all over to prove to a new bunch of—far more humorless—new characters that same thing, only through arguably seedier, more ruthless means.
It should come as no surprise that Pearson is a great showcase for Gina Torres because it was created as such, both for her as the lead and as an executive producer. But thankfully, Pearson features a talented cast that, while perhaps not as well-dressed as Gina Torres—she’s got to keep the Suits spirit alive somehow—or as commanding as the titular character, can carry their own scenes and storylines without that “Where’s Jessica Pearson?” question coming up too often. There is an unfortunate political affair storyline—hinted at in the backdoor pilot and confirmed in the series and promos—that takes up a lot of Keri and Novak’s time as characters, but it ends up being worth it for the eventual interaction between Keri (a character who struggles with what must be fundamentally wrong with her to engage in this behavior) and Novak’s wife, Stephanie (Betsy Brandt). Pearson tackles subjects like this, as well as hunger strikes, levels of corruption in politics, poverty, ICE and immigration—officially confirming that Jessica Pearson shares her actor’s Afro-Latina status—and pretty much what you’d expect from a show like this (on top of Jessica’s personal and professional lives both functioning and clashing together, of course). Pretty much every episode title plays like the answer to the It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia question, “Who are we doing it versus?” Sometimes, it’s “The Alderman,” other times, it’s “The Immigration Lawyer,” etc.
But the one thing that doesn’t quite work about the show is the part that clearly exists to provide personal stakes and a larger reason for Jessica to stick around in Chicago: Jessica’s extended family. (If she and Jeff don’t end up making it, that is, considering how much of the season is them clashing over her new career.) It’s obviously the hardest hurdle to jump in a series specifically about politics, and Pearson never quite lands it. In fact, Jessica’s family feels like the type of plot that exists only to be a casualty of “retooling” in the second season. And honestly? The series would probably be much better for it, as Pearson’s already slow pace grinds to a halt during these scenes, especially their most prolific versions, where Angela (Chantel Riley) is upset with “bougie” Jessica for trying to help them out the best way she knows how (with money or the things she can buy with money, like a house).
Pearson’s cast is its greatest strength, but Chantel Riley has the unfortunate task of playing a character who is so proud (described as “defiant”) that she’d rather let herself, her two young sons and her mother live on the street than take “charity” from Jessica. It might could work on another character type, but here, the “defiant” behavior in the name of what’s right and “money isn’t everything” comes across as far less admirable (or as proof of strong moral character) than the series attempts to make it. Instead, she comes across as selfish at best and negligent at worst, yet is still considered on the right side of things—especially as someone on the opposite side of the corrupt politicians in this city. But another character fills a similar role, Jessica’s assistant Yoli Castillo (Isabel Arraiza), and she does so as an unencumbered young woman in her early 20s, which allows it to work. She still has moments of criticizing Jessica’s methods and way of life, but that’s not all she does.
The series actually does provide a potential shift for Angela that can make the character work better in the future—especially as a character that’s actually part of the action instead of just a roadblock—but it takes the whole season for it to get there. The Angela problem actually highlights a bigger point—arguably an issue—about Pearson’s entire first season (all of which was available for review): By the end of it all, it’s more than apparent that while the Suits spinoff makes for a perfectly cromulent season of television, this first season solely exists as a prologue to a more interesting follow-up season and series. It’s table-setting, which sort of ends up making this whole season feel like you’ve been sold a bill of goods. Pearson is able to go a long way just on a character as large and in charge as Jessica. That’s the show. Until it’s suddenly not the show, as a much larger issue—explaining what McGann has over Novak—is uncovered. By the end of the season, that has taken over the show’s world. The good news is, this prologue-of-sorts does a very good job of world-building, to the point you wouldn’t even realize Jessica’s “not from around here” when all is said and done.
This pivot does somewhat make sense though, as it falls in line with the progressive feeling throughout the season that Pearson has plenty of potential, it just has yet to tap into it. Despite ultimately feeling like the prologue to the actual Chapter One, the first season does build interest in what the series will look like once it’s officially settled in. Ultimately, Pearson is compelling summer fare, and on that front, there’s no reason to compare it to other shows. But I’m still going to do it. One can probably make a safe bet that the series won’t go full-on government conspiracy and black ops the way Scandal did; although; I’m sure plenty of us wouldn’t mind Gina Torres channeling her inner Anna Espinosa again, at any point, in any series. Comparing it to a previous USA shows, Pearson lacks the life of Political Animals (which itself was also an atypical USA series at the time); but at the same time, it is going for that grittier approach and one on a much smaller scale. The best true comparison to be made for Pearson is that it’s kind of like a basic cable version of Damages (only focused on politics instead of law) in terms of approach and scope. It’s not as tense nor as thrilling, at least not yet. But then again, there’s this simple truth: “You’re Jessica Pearson.”
Pearson premieres Wednesday, July 17th on USA.
Despite her mother’s wishes, LaToya Ferguson is a writer living in Los Angeles. If you want to talk The WB’s image campaigns circa 1999-2003, LaToya’s your girl. Her writing has been featured in The A.V. Club, Indiewire, Entertainment Weekly, Complex, Consequence of Sound, and Flavorwire, among other publications. You can find her tweets about TV shows, movies, and music you completely forgot about @lafergs;.