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Philly Justice: A Retrospective

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Holly McIntyre - Amy Poehler 

Joanna “Joey” Suarez - Rashida Jones 

Beth Ivins - Kathryn Hahn 

Jack Abernathy - Paul Rudd/Dylan McDermott/Dermot Mulroney 

Nick Bellows - Adam Scott


01x01 “PILOT” - Holly McIntyre’s first day at the Harben, Melton, and Abernathy law firm is a whirlwind of activity: meeting her fiery deskmate Joanna “Joey” Suarez, finding a mutual respect with the smart-mouthed paralegal Beth Ivins, and realizing that the jerk she got in a shouting match with is Jack Abernathy, grandson of one of the firm’s founders. Her coworkers’ continued reference to a missing “Nick” infuriate her until she meets the hotshot lawyer, recently returned from Iraq, and sparks fly. There’s also a grisly murder case to defend! This pilot, like many, suffered from trying to give every character’s motivation and personality a full treatment in just one hour. Fans will notice the odd tension between Paul Rudd’s Jack and Joey, whose professional distaste for each other contributed in a small way to Rudd’s replacement after this episode.

01x02 “KANGAROO COURT” - Holly’s past failures come back to bite her, as a case she tried early in her career is dismissed and the person she got convicted plans to sue. Her shaky standing in the firm is threatened, and she must turn to her new coworkers for their help - especially Joey, whose personal connection to the convicted raises eyebrows. Dylan McDermott appears as Jack for the first time, immediately lending likability and gravitas to the complicated character. Revealing Joey as a lesbian this early in the show was a brave move - remember, Philly Justice aired in 2003!

01x03 “CEDAR RAPIDS” - Jack and Holly interrupt an important consultation with a trivial argument, and both are disciplined. Nick’s drinking since his return from Iraq concerns Joey and Beth, who team up to get him to see a therapist. This is the episode where Joey and Beth’s chemistry revealed itself, spawning the long-running subplot fans voted “Best Gay Romance” in TV Guide three years running.

01x04 “OVERRULED” - Holly works pro bono with Legal Aid in her spare time, but when one of her cases overlaps with a high-profile case Jack is working, tempers flare and loyalties are tested. Joey and Beth engage in an escalating prank war. This episode was the only one not to feature Adam Scott, who was hospitalized for a perforated ulcer and missed shooting. His presence in the following episode was shrunk to compensate for the health issue.

01x05 “AFTER DAVID” - Beth considers applying to law school, and asks Joey and Holly for advice. Nick and Jack work a lucrative agribusiness case and discover the things they have in common. The Beth-goes-to-law-school plot was inspired by Kathryn Hahn, who pointed out in an earlier read-through that her paralegal character was too smart not to consider being a real lawyer.

01x06 “RETRACTION” - Joey’s work on a major sexual harassment case is called into question; Beth and Holly work overtime to prove Joey right. Nick and Jack are invited to a client’s home, where they discover unsavory secrets, and must decide how to proceed. Joey’s character never tested well with the network, but fans loved her refusal to take discrimination quietly. This episode, many believe, is meant as a defense of her as a character to the network.

01x07 “TOMORROW” - Beth decides not to apply for law school, and asks to take some personal time after her father’s death. Joey and Holly are expected to take over her work, which infuriates them. Nick realizes that they’re right and volunteers to take over the paralegal work, to Jack’s shock. Jack’s arm is in a sling for this episode; McDermott sprained his wrist skiing, an injury the show referenced briefly as carpal tunnel syndrome.

01x08 “DARKER STILL” - A medical malpractice case divides the team. Jack begs Beth to come back, and she does so on the promise of a raised salary and her own office. Kathryn Hahn wrote the dialogue for the conversation between Jack and Beth, and her masterful treatment speaks to how well she understood Beth.

01x09 “BEFORE” (pt 1) - A shooter invades Harben, Melton, and Abernathy, trapping the team in Beth’s new office amid unpacked boxes. Arguments, friendships, and bonding happen amid the fear that fills the firm. This two-part episode was very difficult for the cast, who dealt with the heavy emotional content by buying a karaoke machine for the set. Rashida Jones and Dylan McDermott’s rendition of “Islands in the Stream” has to be heard to be believed.

01x10 “AFTER” (pt 2) - The shooter is captured, but during the firefight Nick’s PTSD is triggered. He disappears, going on a bender, and Holly finds him in a dangerous situation. After filming on this episode closed, the cast went to Las Vegas for a weekend with their families: poolside lounging left tan marks that can be seen clearly in the next episode.

01x11 “PENCILS DOWN” - Jack’s younger brother is accused of cheating on the bar exam. His own secretive nature collides with his need for help from his coworkers, whose opinions range from doubt (Holly) to belief (Nick) and everywhere in between. Joey and Beth are stuck in an elevator and an attraction sparks. Dermot Mulroney replaces Dylan McDermott as Jack in this episode, a recasting that rumors hold was caused by McDermott’s increasing stature and the show’s spiraling budget issues. 

01x12 “PLAYING FOR KEEPS” - An all-lawyer poker game ignites rage from Joey, who feels that her being a woman (and not white) is to blame for her not being allowed to join. Jack insists it’s not men-only, but is proved wrong when he confronts his father about inviting Joey to join. Mulroney did a fine job stepping into an established character, keeping some of the physical language McDermott used, such as the hand through the hair, a move fans nicknamed The Stroke.

01x13 “PETER AND THE WOLF” - Holly and Nick begrudgingly accompany Jack and the other partners to the opera for a fundraiser. Joey and Beth enjoy the relative quiet of the office, but when a homeless man accosts them on their way to lunch, all hell breaks loose. The homeless man in this episode is actually a young Thomas Jane, who had originally auditioned for the role of Nick.

01x14 “LINEAGE” - Joey and Beth’s secret attraction blossoms into a secret romance. Nick and Jack struggle with a case that Holly could help with - they don’t ask her, not knowing about her expertise, but she reads it as dismissal. This highly controversial episode is a fan favorite, for good reason. The depiction of a lesbian relationship in a positive light was a rare moment of social progressiveness on the network. Fans often ignore the depiction of Holly in this episode as a railing, clueless ragebeast, choosing instead to pay attention to Joey and Beth’s hesitant connection. 

01x15 “PROS SAY” - Holly and Nick argue over an Eagles player’s claims of slander when steroid abuse allegations appear in a gossip column. Joey and Beth continue their secret romance, but when Jack starts snooping around, will their growing relationship break apart? This episode features appearances from actual Eagles players, which was a lot of fun on the set. Somewhere floating around is a photo of Alonzo Ephraim dwarfing the entire rest of the cast.

01x16 “WORK WIFE” - A sexual harassment case between two women indirectly exposes Joey and Beth’s relationship, and both of their jobs are threatened. Holly unsurprisingly stands up for their rights, but Jack is revealed to also support them (and have known the whole time). Nick reunites with an old flame from his time in Iraq. Nick’s old flame Maura, played by the beautiful Lena Headey, was intended to be a recurring character, but Headey’s busy schedule kept her from appearing again.

01x17 “VICTORY DANCE” - A paternity suit against his father takes up Jack’s every waking moment, driving him to exhaustion. Holly and Nick fight over a new computer setup, which Joey secretly gets for herself while they’re distracted. Another of the rare mostly-comedic episodes, this one (and the following episode) features very little of Kathryn Hahn, who was away filming both WIN A DATE WITH TAD HAMILTON and ANCHORMAN.

01x18 “PRO BONO” - Holly is offered a position running a Legal Aid office and seriously considers leaving the firm. Nick panics at the thought of her leaving and tries in ever-increasing ways to show her that she’s valued by the firm (and by him). Joey and Beth move in together. With Kathryn Hahn still away filming, Rashida Jones spent most of this episode talking into a phone to no one.

01x19 “AD LIGHT ‘EM” - Beth and Joey deal with the repercussions of their relationship at work. Jack buys a suit that was cut for a woman, and Holly and Nick work on a child’s emancipation suit. Dermot Mulroney hated this episode, and the fans didn’t care for it either. The clumsy handling of Joey and Beth’s relationship was mostly confined to this episode, which was directed by Melvin Roberts, who never directed a Philly Justice episode before or after.

01x20 “GLAD TIDINGS” - A holiday party in the office turns into a marathon bonding session after the team is snowed in. This was an attempt to curb the budget by having a bottle episode with only the main cast. I can confirm that the wine the team drinks in the episode was real wine at least half of the time.

01x21 “BLANK SLATE” - The new year brings with it resolutions: Jack resolves to spend some time working with Holly at Legal Aid, Holly resolves to make partner, Nick resolves to go on an actual vacation, and Joey and Beth throw a dinner party for their families. Joey and Beth’s family dinner was mostly improvised; the actors watched the family dinner scene from WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING for inspiration.

01x22 “TRAVESTY” - On their way to Legal Aid, Holly and Jack are in a horrific car accident. Nick, Joey, and Beth, work and worry in the waiting room, where an abused woman benefits from their expertise. The abused woman in this episode was played by Tilda Swinton as a personal favor to the episode’s director, Lynn Hershman-Leeson, who had directed Swinton in CONCEIVING ADA. Hershman-Leeson also directed fan favorite episodes 02x06 and 02x17. 


02x01 “HEAD DOWN” - Holly and Jack return to the firm, still bearing the marks of their injuries. Nick confronts the driver who struck them, and it’s revealed that his drinking problem has reemerged. Joey and Beth have a major fight, and consider breaking up. This episode marked a departure for the show: already a drama, it now became something between a soap opera and a Greek tragedy. Most of the episodes this season were darker and sadder than the first season, owing partially to the show’s struggling status on the network.

02x02 “EX PARTY” - Joey goes on what she thinks is a friendly lunch with an ex, sparking Beth’s jealousy. Holly’s long-separated parents reunite and hold a vow renewal ceremony; Holly convinces Nick and Jack to go with her. This episode certainly feels like an excuse for that electrifying argument between Rashida and Kathryn, who came up with the dialog and the setting (that terrific snowy sidwalk) together with the writers.

02x03 “SINGLE MALT” - Nick’s drinking gets him suspended from the firm. Beth moves out of the apartment she shares with Joey. Holly and Jack work to solve both problems. Adam Scott’s Emmy nomination was on the strength of this episode, which he submitted with a note about the research he did with Alcoholics Anonymous.

02x04 “DANGER IN QUESTION” - A flashback episode shows Nick’s experiences in Iraq for the first time, interspersed with his treatment in an alcohol rehab clinic. Adam Scott performed admirably in this extremely dark episode directed by showrunner Michelle McLaren.

02x05 “I-95” - Holly finally renews her drivers’ license in the wake of the accident. Joey and Beth deal with the awkwardness of their breakup in the office. Nick and Jack try a sensationalist paternity suit against the mayor of Philadelphia. The mayor, played by the wonderful John Lafayette, was one of the few African-American mayors in fiction at the time, and the cast demanded that he be brought back in the next season (which never happened). The writers had an idea about a season-long scandal taking place in the mayor’s office.

02x06 “GRADING ON A CURVE” - A flashback episode shows Joey’s development into the fiery lawyer she became; the ending reveals Joey’s new, softer look. Rashida Jones called the makeup and costuming on this episode “stupidly good,” and indeed the makeup and costume departments received commendations at the Golden Globes for this episode.

02x07 “KEEP AMERICA CLEAN” - Jack is asked to run for political office; he refuses, citing workload at the firm. But Nick and Holly know it’s really his fear of failure keeping him from running, and try to encourage him. Joey and Beth reach an understanding, repairing their friendship but not their relationship. This episode is frustrating: the writers planned to reunite Joey and Beth romantically in the penultimate scene at show landmark Travers’ Diner, but Standards & Practices refused to sign off on the planned kiss and proposal. Instead, the writers decided to slow-burn the relationship in the background.

02x08 “AB INITIO” - This high-concept episode casts the team as the early founders of Harben, Melton, and Abernathy: Holly and Beth are sexpot secretaries, Nick and Jack are Melton and Abernathy, and Joey is the illegitimate daughter of Harben. This episode is just terrible, aside from Hahn’s hilariously deadpan double entendres.

02x09 “THE RECIDIVIST” - A CEO with recurrent sexual harassment suits insists that Jack defend him pro bono (as Jack’s father has done). Jack refuses, trying to separate himself from his father. Holly and Nick wake up in bed together after a poker game - revealing in the process that they’d actually slept together once before, in the early days of Holly’s time at the firm. Beth secretly applies to law school. Joey develops a gambling problem. The gambling problem plot was supposed to be cued to sharp-eyed fans in 02x02, when Joey kills time before meeting her friend with a video poker machine. The relative lack of reinforcement means that the revelation felt out-of-nowhere.

02x10 “LIEN AND MEAN” - Joey’s gambling debts mount until she defaults on her mortgage; she moves in with Holly temporarily. Beth confides in Nick and Jack about her law school application; Jack well-meaningly (but offensively) offers to use his influence to help her get in. 

02x11 “BLACKOUT” - A blackout traps Nick and Holly in the basement of the firm. They agree to give their flirtation a real chance at being a relationship. Beth gets accepted to a prominent law school in New England, and asks Joey to move away with her, revealing to the audience that they had rekindled their romance. Another budget-saving episode, filmed entirely in two sets.

02x12 “MATERIAL WITNESS” - A former sweatshop worker brings a class-action suit to the firm, asking for support. Joey and Beth volunteer to help her, drawing disdain from Jack and Nick, who think the case is unwinnable. Holly finds out she might be pregnant. Amy Poehler hated the pregnancy scare storyline, which (going by the next episode) was a good impulse.

02x13 “PER JURY” - This poorly-reviewed musical episode is revealed to be a fever dream by Holly, whose pregnancy scare was caused by a benign ovarian cyst. Terrible episode: none of the cast were professional singers, although Rashida Jones did an excellent job on her love song to Kathryn Hahn.

02x14 “LEADING” - Jack is named partner, and his crippling self-doubt takes over his work life. Holly and Nick are seated near Joey and Beth as both couples secretly go out for dinner. The awkwardness escalates as all four try to pretend they’re not dating and don’t see the other. A rare second-season comedic episode, this was one of the best-reviewed episodes of the show’s run. Unfortunately, it came too late to save the show from cancellation.

02x15 “REASONABLE DOUBT” - A flashback episode charts Holly’s evolution over her law school years from a wide-eyed idealist into a practical, hard-working lawyer. The wonderful Amy Poehler got to use her comedic timing to great effect here, but the heavy-handedness of the message leaves a bad taste in the viewer’s mouth.

02x16 “MELTON AND ABERNATHY” - Ezekiel Harben, the rarely-seen third partner of the firm, dies after a long illness. The team attends his funeral, during which Holly reveals that her mother is very ill with an unknown illness. This was my last episode with the show, and it was a worthy send-off: the cast party afterwards was especially emotional.

02x17 “MOST ELIGIBLE” - An old law school colleague of Nick’s comes to interview at the firm, and tries to rekindle their friendship. Nick secretly campaigns against him, remembering the man’s sleazy behavior around female clients and coworkers. Joey and Beth reunite romantically after Jack tries to set them up with other people. Miller, the sleazy ex-friend of Nick’s, was played by then-unknown John Hamm, who of course later went on to great prominence in Mad Men.

02x18 “PARTY OF THE FIRST PART” (pt 1) - Holly’s mother is diagnosed with terminal brain cancer and calls on Holly to help her end her life with dignity. Holly struggles with the decision, posing it as a hypothetical to the team, who argue both for and against assisted suicide. Amy Poehler’s work in the final three episodes of the series is beyond reproach. Her win of the Emmy was utterly deserved, and earned a standing ovation from the crowd.

02x19 “PARTY OF THE SECOND PART” (pt 2) - Holly’s mother dies after overdosing on morphine. Holly is charged with criminally negligent homicide for assisting her, and the team is shocked to see her led away in handcuffs. Rashida Jones and Kathryn Hahn’s tears in the final scene are real: they had just been told that the show hadn’t been renewed.

02x20 “VOIR DIRE” - Holly stands trial for criminal negligence after helping her mother commit suicide; the team works to exonerate her. This cliffhanger was never resolved, since the show wasn’t renewed for a third season. Fans asked showrunner Michelle McLaren what the outcome of the trial would have been. Her reply: “I don’t know, honestly. We’d written two endings - one where the case is dismissed and one where she’s sentenced to a few years in jail. We talked about doing a time jump, having her come back to the firm after two years or so, kind of mirroring the pilot, but before we really started focusing on it, we got the bad news. So either way, whatever you want to believe.”