ABC’s Shondaland legal drama “For the People” is set in Manhattan’s “Mother Court” — the oldest district court in the country. That means the case files that land on the desks of its newest public defenders are top-tier and highly relevant: the murder of a state senator, an attempted bombing of the Statue of Liberty.
Case-focused episodes shift the plot weekly, allowing the series to comment on immigrant deportation one week and video-game inspired “swatting” the next.
“These are definitely very topical issues,” says Hope Davis ("About Schmidt," "American Splendor"). Davis, who’s called Brooklyn home for 13 years, portrays Federal Public Defender Jill Carlan. She’s the leader of a group of fresh-faced lawyers (Britt Robertson, Wesam Keesh) taking on their first cases in the Southern District of New York federal court.
Following the Shonda Rhimes’ success formula, the series mixes drama — romance and a group of BFFs that give off “Grey’s Anatomy” and "How to Get Away With Murder" vibes — with high-stakes career dilemmas.
“For the People,” now in its second season, is obviously fictional. But how realistic is the series’ portrayal of New York City’s prosecutors and defenders?
The series’ showrunner Paul William Davies studied at the University of California, Berkeley and recieved a law degree from Stanford, but quickly realized he “didn’t want to actually practice law, but wanted to write about it,” Davis explains.
While working on “For the People,” he decided to base Davis’ character Jill on a real public defender (with the same name) who currently works in Los Angeles.
“She allowed me to come to the office and hang around with her and follow her to court,” she says. “It was a humbling experience. I was in awe of how dedicated and how hard she works … it’s always nice to go behind the scenes and see the parts of our country that are working really well and upholding the rule of law.”
Davis says real-life Jill has been available to ensure the show’s portrayal of public defenders remains as accurate as possible.
“She’s just filled with information. She really wants the show to be correctly done and if something’s not right that Jill doesn’t like, we’ll deal with it,” she says. “But the thing I took most from her was her complete dedication to the job.”
The cases Jill’s team of public defenders take on in the series are ones not unlike what would actually be brought to the “Mother Court” today. The historic court has heard everything from loss of personal property cases like after the Titanic sunk, to the 2015 Tom Brady Deflategate controversy and 2018 sentencing of President Donald Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen.
Episodes have told stories of “swatting” — a "serious problem" in the gaming community involving false calls to the police — immigration, human trafficking, city bomb threats, voter suppression and more.
A season 2 episode titled “This Is America” stands out to Davies: It tells the story of a man who takes the stand to testify in a federal case only to be welcomed by ICE agents threatening to deport him.
“These things are actually happening,” she says. "I’m in Los Angeles right now, where we shoot the show, and what’s happening is communities of people are not sure who’s going to be deported next or pulled over. So, the episodes that deal with immigration, they really are powerful."
The real “Mother” courthouse, at 500 Pearl St., is sandwiched between Columbus Park and Thomas Paine Park, walking distance to the southernmost tip of Manhattan. Several exterior shots of the series are filmed on location in Manhattan in both the first and second seasons, but the bulk of the show isn’t shot in the city.
"We all had this fantasy when we first got cast. We thought maybe if we all ask, they’ll move the show to New York!” Davis jokes. “I don’t know what we were thinking. It’s a Shonda Rhimes show and her productions are shot in Los Angeles.”
The series did come to the city for the second season premiere’s softball game scenes, something Davis says the cast was “really, really excited about.”
“In our time here, we filmed scenes for a whole bunch of episodes because New York itself is such an incredible character and it’s a big part of our show,” she says.
This isn’t a legal docuseries, so Davis admits there’s creative license taken. Balancing plots heavily focused on issues relevant in today’s cultural and political climate are the fictional relationships between public defenders and private defense attorneys.
More specifically, the romance between Jill and Roger Gunn (Ben Shenkman, "Billions"), the chief of the criminal division in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, who essentially head rival departments and share private case information.
“This is the one part of the show that I think is real TV,” Davis says. “We’ve spent time with federal public defenders in New York and in Los Angeles and they love the show … but the one thing the defenders say is, ‘you know, we would never hang out with the U.S. attorneys.’”
But it’s these fictional relationships and gatherings (like softball games) between the two groups that “keeps the show moving,” she adds.
ON TV: "For the People" airs new episodes Thursdays at 10 p.m. on ABC.