MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - It may be the biggest thing to happen to Memphis since scoring an NBA team: A weekly network series filming in the Bluff City, starring the Bluff City.
NBC’s “Bluff City Law” premieres Sept. 23 on WMC Action News 5, and I sat down with the cast and creator to talk about what critics are calling must-see TV.
The show's star, the inimitable Golden Globe and Emmy Award-winning Jimmy Smits, says Memphis was the chosen city over a Hollywood sound stage.
"After we shot the pilot, I knew in my heart it had to be done here. That it couldn't be done anywhere else," Smits explained.
Smits portrays an accomplished Memphis attorney named Elijah Strait. A return to the TV courtroom that’s reminiscent of his days playing an attorney on L.A. Law.
”The cast is versatile and diverse. I can't wait for you guys to see that we're running on all cylinders. We’ve got a really deep bench,” smiled Smits.
In her first leading role, actress Caitlin McGee plays Elijah’s estranged corporate attorney daughter, Sydney.
During a press junket with Smits and McGee at Memphis’ Itta Bena Restaurant, McGee told me she is relishing the chance to work with Smits.
“He sets a tone and we follow,” McGee said as she looked over at Smits. “I try to set a tone, but I'm little and scrappy and you're (Smits) like this...”
Smits quickly chimed in mid-sentence, “She sets a great tone on the set every day and brings her ‘A Game’ every day."
Jayne Atkinson, from hit shows “House of Cards,” “24,” and “Criminal Minds,” plays the firm's mother hen, Della Bedford.
“Della is a sixth generation Tennessee woman. She’s strong, warm, wise, she is sassy and sexy,” Atkinson revealed.
The show’s creators say Bluff City Law is poised to put the city on display for the rest of America.
Award-winning executive producer David Janollari says they had the idea for a new legal drama, but needed a home base for the character-driven script.
“It’s a thrill to be shooting Bluff City Law in Memphis. It is a dream come true, this city,” he mused. “One of the things we try to do in Bluff City Law is kind of attack the David and Goliath kind of stories, the every-man. The underdog triumphing over the big bad injustices. That’s the heart of our show.”
Janollari's credits range from "Friends" to "Six Feet Under." He says this show will rip from real headlines.
"We decided on Memphis because of its deep history here. It's a great backdrop to have a law show, set in the town that's really the start of the Civil Rights Movement," said Janollari.
Some of the actors had quite the unique path to Memphis.
Actor Michael Luwoye played “Hamilton” on Broadway and happened to arrive in the Bluff City the week his old castmates were performing “Hamilton” at Memphis' Orpheum Theatre, serving as his Memphis welcome mat.
"It was great to have that starting point,” he recalled. “It was also a good transition because when I found out about this, it was my final week in Hamilton."
In the show, Luwoye plays Anthony Little, a powerful attorney at Elijah’s firm, and said he’s excited about the role.
“Bluff City Law’s” millennial character was a huge fan of Janollari's work coming to Memphis from the Nickelodeon network via Iceland.
"When I grew up, I used to watch ‘Friends’ and ‘Seinfeld,’ confessed Stony Byden. “That's what taught me English and made me want to act and move to L.A."
Meanwhile, the cast is truly settling in to living in the Bluff City.
Barry Sloan plays Jake Reilly, a hot shot attorney at Elijah’s firm.
"If you talk about Memphis BBQ, me and Michael had to eat,” the “Revenge” actor recollected. “We have a scene in a BBQ house, and I think he had 29 ribs. I had 23, so he won the first battle at that."
Actor Josh Kelly, who plays Sydney’s ex-husband (a Memphis police officer named Robbie), says during his downtime, he’s found fun at a certain local attraction.
"Everyone makes fun of me for it, but I love the Bass Pro Shop,” Kelly gesticulated. “I think it is the neatest thing on the planet. It's a pyramid and a Bass Pro Shop."
MaameYaa Boafo plays Briana Johnson, a private investigator who is Sydney’s best friend.
“I’m personally saving the STAX Museum for later, like not trying to save the best for last, per se,” she explained. “But I’ve heard so many things about it and I just want to make sure I go there on a day where I have nothing to worry about, no time constraints.”
If you’re wondering whether the show will be a hit, just ask Atkinson.
"I am where things happen,” she grinned. “And at this age, drop mic, I get to say it. I said to the girls, and I loved it I was like, 'I've only been on hits.’”
Here’s to hoping history repeats itself with another hit show.
Bluff City Law premieres Monday, Sept. 23 at 9 p.m.
NBC has ordered 16 episodes running Monday nights, right before our 10 p.m. newscast.