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‘Reasonable Doubt’ review: A Shonda Rhimes-esque legal drama that does Rhimes’ style even better

A legal drama with plenty of soapy intrigue, “Reasonable Doubt” on Hulu stars Emayatzy Corinealdi as Jax Stewart, a glamorous Los Angeles attorney to the rich and powerful. At work? She’s on point. At home? Well, things are considerably messier.

Shonda Rhimes didn’t invent this formula, but she perfected it — notably with shows like “Scandal” and “How to Get Away with Murder” — proving there’s a sizable TV audience looking for complicated portrayals of Black women as antiheroes: Super-accomplished in public, frequently guided by callous self-interest and armed with a piercing assessment of reality. But in private, they can be revealingly vulnerable and sometimes completely broken. They may behave badly — it’s how they’ve chosen to move through a world forever looking to cut them off at the knees — but they are not without a conscience. The dichotomy is what makes them so compelling as characters.

“Reasonable Doubt” creator Raamla Mohamed is a “Scandal” alum and she takes the Rhimes template and improves upon it by (mostly) keeping the narrative from spiraling off into the kind of shock value melodrama that can raise the stakes but tends to undermine good storytelling. “Scandal” star Kerry Washington is also on board as an executive producer and she directs the first episode. (Larry Wilmore is a producer here as well.)

There’s a lot to like about “Reasonable Doubt,” which is sharp and fun and moves at a good clip. And it’s smart about keeping things just this side of ridiculous. Jax’s personal life is packed with drama (a lot of it self-inflicted) and she can veer toward the reckless. But when it comes to the job, Jax’s vision remains unclouded.

Actually, wait — that’s not quite true. In her former work as a public defender, she had an affair with a client (Michael Ealy) and the two pick things back up when he’s released from prison. Did I mention Jax is married with two kids but recently separated from her husband? And that she has a one-night fling in her home knowing her husband is likely watching remotely on the security cameras installed in the house? (Mohamed takes advantage of the freedom of streaming to go quite a bit further than Rhimes’ network dramas ever could when it comes to sex scenes.) Jax has a close group of girlfriends looking out for her, but you can’t help but notice all men in her life want to control her.

But in the office, she’s extremely effective when it comes to the less-than-savory demands of her clients, including the NBA player who a young woman has accused of inappropriate behavior. “She wants to take him to court for making her feel uncomfortable, and there’s no penal code for that,” says Jax, almost shrugging. To which her assistant drolly replies: “Your ability to compartmentalize things makes me uncomfortable.”

It’s a terrific performance from Corinealdi, who is both cocky and human, trapped in a house of cards she’s built for herself.

Sexual harassment comes into play yet again when a millionaire liquor company CEO is looking to offload a female executive with whom he had an affair. He hires Jax’s firm to draw up an NDA and offer a payout. When the employee turns up dead, the CEO becomes a prime suspect and Jax is on the case.

Whether or not he did it is more complicated than it initially appears, and it helps that the CEO is played by Sean Patrick Thomas, who can be loathsome and smug one moment, and then inching toward sympathetic another.

I might have preferred more cases for Jax to handle on an episode-by-episode basis. A little more emphasis on what it looks like to even build a case. Who doesn’t love a paperwork scene? And we don’t really see her stumped or unsure of her next step, professionally at least. That’s a missed opportunity because the process of figuring things out can be so fun to watch. I did like the running joke of every visitor to the office asking to have their parking validated; it’s always the little things that people focus on, isn’t it? Even when they’re swanky law firm clients.

Jax has an exquisite wardrobe and it stands out because she frequently wears off-the-shoulder tops to the office. One morning, she arrives in a strapless dress. Each time, she looks amazing. But this is not typical workwear for lawyers. Even L.A. lawyers. These are specific choices about how the character has been styled and I think on some level the show is just having fun with the wardrobe and a lead actress who can pull it off. But maybe there’s something a little more there.

Jax has a very high-powered job where she is the only Black woman surrounded by a sea of white men. The microaggressions … there are many.

And maybe with that wardrobe, she’s sending a message: You can’t force me into your little box of respectability. I dare you to say something.

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'REASONABLE DOUBT'

3 stars (out of 4)

Rating: TV-MA

How to watch: Hulu

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This story was originally published September 28, 2022 10:57 AM.

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