The opening scene of CBS’s new legal drama “Doubt” finds attorney Sadie Ellis (Katherine Heigl) haphazardly careening through New York City on a bicycle. When she finally stops on a crowded sidewalk, she banters with her colleague Albert (Dulé Hill) while changing into more professional attire.
“You’re a menace,” he tells her.
We could take the scene as a winking reference to “Doubt’s” leading lady. Aside from a stint as a CIA agent in the short-lived NBC drama “State of Affairs,” Heigl hasn’t had a steady presence on prime-time since her messy exit from ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy.” In 2008, she withdrew herself from Emmy consideration, citing issues with her character’s story line. Her public comments caused a rift with creator Shonda Rhimes, who bluntly recalled the controversy last year: “I don’t put up with bulls--t or nasty people.”
The “Grey’s Anatomy” fallout, coupled with a weird Duane Reade lawsuit and the fact that Heigl had also aired public grievances with her role in Judd Apatow’s 2007 rom-com “Knocked Up,” earned Heigl a reputation as a “difficult” actress.
“Doubt,” which premieres Wednesday, is a double-edged sword. It reminds us that Heigl is a talented actress, but won’t let us forget “Grey’s Anatomy.” To start, “Doubt” is created by “Grey’s” alums Tony Phelan and Joan Rater. The husband-wife duo were executive producers on the Shondaland drama for nine seasons and spent three seasons as co-showrunners.
“Doubt” also bears a few striking narrative similarities to “Grey’s Anatomy.” Like Meredith Grey, Sadie has an infamous mother (Judith Light) with personal connections to Sadie’s legendary boss and father figure Isaiah Roth (Elliott Gould), who founded the boutique law firm where she works.
There is also sweeping dialogue about practicing law that might induce an eye roll, but will be familiar to anyone who has seen the doctors on “Grey’s” get philosophical. “We do God’s work. We meet people in their darkest hours and fight for them,” Sadie tells Albert. It’s “the Isaiah speech,” referenced when any of the firm’s idealistic lawyers need a pep talk.
In its earliest episodes, “Doubt” is a lot like that first scene —rushed, unrealistic and showy. After she swaps her bike shorts for a somehow pristine white skirt, Sadie charges up the courthouse steps to interrupt a news conference held by the district attorney prosecuting her client, Billy Brennan (Steven Pasquale). Billy, a pediatric surgeon from a prominent New York family, stands accused of murdering his high school girlfriend more than two decades ago. And Sadie is fighting an attraction to him.
The pilot feels more focused on introducing names and faces than actual characters worthy of our investment. The cases feel like standard “Law & Order” fare, which is fine on “Law & Order” but less compelling here.
There is promise in the ensemble cast: Laverne Cox, lauded for her role as transgender inmate Sophia Burset on “Orange Is the New Black,” plays Cameron Wirth, a dedicated attorney who looks up to Isaiah. The role makes Cox the first transgender person to be a series regular on a prime-time show. Her character is also a transgender woman, though the show wisely doesn’t limit her story to her gender identity. Kobi Libii (“Alpha House”) has an intriguing role as a young ex-con who got his law degree in prison and is determined to work for Isaiah’s firm.
But the show doesn’t know exactly what to do with other characters, like the doe-eyed Iowa transplant played by Dreama Walker. “I’m from Iowaaaa!” she declares more than once. Walker, like several other faces in “Doubt,” had a recurring role on “The Good Wife,” which still reigns supreme as far as CBS legal dramas go. The comic relief provided by Sadie’s ditzy assistant, Lucy (Lauren Blumenfeld), falls flat more often than it works.
The biggest issue, though, is Sadie’s burgeoning romance with Billy, which is meant to be the source of “Doubt’s” juiciest drama. Honestly there’s more chemistry in the work spouse relationship between Sadie and Albert. And Sadie doesn’t present the most convincing case for her attraction to her client.
“Whenever I would go to interview him in jail and the guards would take off his handcuffs, he’d say thank you. Every single time,” she tells Isaiah, who knows a thing or two about falling in love with a client. “Those little kindnesses killed me.”
Not so McDreamy. But regardless, this romance is happening — Billy and Sadie share their first kiss before the pilot episode credits roll. The good news is that Billy’s murder case starts to get interesting in the second episode, when it becomes clear that he’s hiding something.
Ultimately, I’m not ready to deliver a verdict on “Doubt.” CBS provided the first, second and fifth episodes for review and those two missing episodes essentially render me a hung jury. But the fifth episode held my attention. Depending on how “Doubt” fills in the blanks, it might just be worth your time.
It might also bring Heigl back for good.
Doubt (1 hour) premieres Wednesday at 10 p.m. on CBS.