Forget The Mentalist…Revisting The Guardian

The_Guardian_(TV_series)the guardian nick lulu

This week I’ve been re-watching an old CBS lawyer show called The Guardian, notable for being Simon Baker’s first TV series before he hit it huge with The Mentalist. Baker is super charming, with a twinkling smile and highly charismatic as con man psychic turned crime fighter on The Mentalist, but for me the show ran out of steam very badly once they solved the Red John mystery (the man who killed Patrick Jane’s family) and followed the dull predictable route of pairing up Jane with Robin Tunney’s character.

Skipping through the TV channels several years back, I came across The Guardian and immediately spotted a younger, shorter haired Baker and started watching. Running on CBS from 2001 to 2003 for 3 seasons, The Guardian featured Baker as Nick Fallin, a hot shot lawyer who is busted for drugs and as part of his probation, is given 1500 hours of community service working for Legal Services of Pittsburgh (LSP), the US version of the Citzens Advice Bureau or Legal Aid, providing free legal help to those in need. The show largely focussed on the children’s services side of the law. So far, so formulaic, right? But what made The Guardian stand out for me was the characterisations. Almost everyone is deeply flawed and barely likable! Nick Fallin is cold and emotionally distant with everyone, and while we do get flashes of the Baker charm, Nick is one of the most hard to get to know leads on a TV show. I was also really glad they didn’t soften him much throughout the three seasons. We seem him relapse a few times and screw up a lot! However Baker manages to make us sympathise with Nick, while also seeing how screwed up emotionally he is. A lot of the focus was on Nick’s relationships – with his dad Burton (Dabney Coleman) and his feelings for fellow lawyer Lulu (Louisa) Archer played by Wendy Moniz.

Watching again this week, I was struck but how relatively slow paced and unflashy the show was compared to dramas these days. There was also a big focus on Burton and the old white alpha males adjusting to modern life. The Guardian still features a patriarchal world and Nick’s more modern ways often clash with his father’s. Both Nick and Burton are distant and aloof, and we rarely get any emotional opening up from either. Indeed, Nick’s lack of soul baring makes him quite the enigma. Personally, I was not a fan of Burton’s storylines most of the time. His sense of entitled superiority really irritated me! We had quite a lot of episodes examining the aging white males struggling to keep their pride and ego while their businesses failed. There was virtually no reciprocal examinations of aging females. Lulu’s mother played by Rito Moreno and Farrah Fawcett as a potential love interest for Burton were about it for the more mature lady (although Kathleen Chalfont as Laurie, a social worker popped up a few times).

On the other hand, I was a huge Nick/Lulu fan, and absolutely loved Wendy Moniz (who sadly has not gone on to have the glittering career Simon Baker has). She is another highly original character on a TV drama,  who while attracted to Nick from the start, marries another man and takes quite a while to extricate herself from that marriage. Nick and Lulu’s relationship is never a happy one for long, and again, I sort of loved that (although I do wish they had had a happier ending.)Their first kiss is interrupted by Lulu’s fiance, they are in a car wreck while on their way to a first date, even when they do hook up, it lasts about 3 episodes until Lulu has the offer of a job across the country and neither can actually TALK to the other about it. This is a couple who barely communicate – Nick closed off, Lulu cautious and hesitant to take a chance – but so obviously care about each other. Delightfully maddening!

On a few occasions, I do question how Lulu was written. The character and actress have a lot of detractors from some fans – mainly Simon Baker fans who cannot believe ANYONE could resist him I think! However, in season 2 when Lulu is about to get a job in California and Nick stutters through a confession that he loves her, Lulu is really weird and cold with him in a scene that is poorly written (or maybe poorly directed or acted?) We know she has doubts, but she also knows Nick and knows a confession of love from him means something important. The way she is written just sort of responding ‘huh?’ makes her seem pretty cold and heartless herself.

I am not sure if there has ever been a tv couple with more dazzling smiles than Simon Baker and Wendy Moniz, who both are gorgeous (of course, this is TV!) but have exceptionally beautiful smiles! Simon Baker’s smouldering gazes and Wendy Moniz’s dimples were a constant aesthetic pleasure.

Unfortunately, not everything worked as well on The Guardian. I HATED pretty much every moment Alan Rosenberg as Alvin was on screen. Alvin is the boss at LSP and is so condescending, smug and know it all, every time he was on screen I wanted to punch him! Was he supposed to be so awful?

Charles Malik Whitfield as James was the one black lawyer and hardly had a decent story throughout the two seasons. Usually when black characters appeared, they were drug users or in the case of James’ nephew (a pre-Veronica Mars, Percy Daggs III) rappers. This was not an especially progressive show racially.  While the show did have Nick’s colleague Jake turn out to be gay in the third season, his attitude of denial and shame seems very dated now in 2016 when characters sexuality is dealt with very differently. There were a number of episodes focussing on LGBT issues, I just recently watched a rather cringe-worthy  season 2 episode with a trans character that fed into a lot of stereotypes.  We explored Jake’s various hook ups and the ‘men’s athletic club’ that he visited, whose attitude to safe sex just seems amazingly backwards watching today. Was this what attitudes were like in 2003 or was The Guardian a bit cliched?

Season 3 saw the implosion of the Nick and Lulu relationship, and once again it was one step forwards for them, followed shortly by about 10 steps back!  Lulu doesn’t leave for California after Alvin is dismissed (why DOES he keep going to ‘the track’? Can somebody please just boot him off the show!!) When Lulu’s father comes to town, Nick ends up asking her to move in with him after she goes to him for help and they reignite their relationship. I loved that storyline with Lulu’s  father in that I am not sure I’ve ever been as creeped out by a father/daughter relationship on TV! Jude Ciccololla is a great character actor you’ll know best from 24. The exact nature of why Lulu is so scared of him is unclear, but he is clearly an obsessive controlling person and with parents like him and Rita Moreno’s super selfish Caroline Novak, you have to wonder how Lulu turned out so relatively normal!

Anyway, after he comes to town, Lulu stays with Nick and he asks her to move in. A few episodes later she reveals she is pregnant. In typical Nick/Lulu maddening ways, they don’t really discuss honestly what they want. Nick just plonks down and engagement ring and stares at her! At this point, most tv couples who have just moved in together and are expecting would be shown as happy and in love. Nick and Lulu are especially joyless and strained and anyone expecting a happy ending must be deluded. However, when the awful Suzanne Pell makes a move on Nick at a party, the idiot snogs her back!! Of course, on returning home, Lulu finally warms up to him a bit saying she wants the baby and for once making the first move to get him into bed. That’s as far as my rewatch has gone so far, but I know this home stretch of episodes is painful, with Nick bizarrely starting an illicit affair with Suzanne and sneaking around. Considering we have seen him pretty much obsessed with Lulu since he first laid eyes on her, I don’t think it is that logical. Annoying writers! Later we have the reveal that their baby has Down’s Syndrome, and the breakup of their relationship. It’s painful stuff and I am sorry the core romantic relationship of the show couldn’t have had a more upbeat ending. The show was cancelled after three seasons, and I like to think the fourth season would have seen Nick and Lulu rebuild things in some ways.

One of the nice things about re-watching though, was seeing quite a lot of young actors who are now in shows I like. Aaron Paul from Breaking Bad was in an early episode, Danielle Panabaker (Caitlin Snow on The Flash) was good, Ashley Johnson (one of the best parts of Blindspot as geeky Patterson) was memorable. A young Kerry Washington, Viola Davis, Anna Gunn, Betsy Brandt, Jesse Plemons (quite a Breaking Bad bunch!), Zac Ephron, Chris Pine and a truly bizarre guest spot from Will Ferrell in the season 2 finale as a new lawyer at LSP who then gets shot in the head! I’ve love to know how THAT came about.

In less than 15 years, things have changed so much that seeing characters smoking on screen is odd, the reams of paperwork that you imagine are done online these days, the almost total lack of businessWOMEN, the small role of the mobile phone in the characters lives, a hilariously dated Brand New GPS enabled watch to keep track of your kids appears in one especially dated episode – as if these days phones and CCTV don’t track your every move.

Still, despite the creaks, this is still a show I like a lot because it features so few easy resolutions and has messy, realistic relationships with people making terrible mistakes when it comes to their partners  as they really are such flawed people. Today’s shows feature relationships that often follow the expected path, with characters usually being nice and appealing, but with cute little quirks. Even a show like House or Damages or Breaking Bad where the protagonists are spiky or unlikable or criminals, they have around them more straightforward moral centres of people that are the eyes of the audience. The Guardian is pretty much all awkward and difficult people with unlikable traits, and I think is still pretty unique for that.

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