LOS ANGELES – Anyone who has ever watched a TV legal drama has seen a character like Cameron Wirth, the highly capable female attorney who can sway a jury with quiet confidence while jockeying for position and respect at her boutique law firm.
But Wirth grew up as a boy. Her introduction in Wednesday’s debut of the CBS series “Doubt” marks the most prominent role by a member of the transgender community in a network drama.
The lack of protests over this groundbreaking moment speaks volumes about how far pop culture has come since Raquel Welch made viewers uncomfortable as a trans entertainer in 1970’s “Myra Breckinridge,” But it has also to do with the trust that actress Laverne Cox, who plays Wirth, inspires in audiences.
The Alabama native has been making history since Sean Combs highlighted her on his 2008 reality show. In the ensuing years, she has become the first member of the transgender community to earn an Emmy nomination (for Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black”), grace the cover of Time magazine and headline a TV musical (Fox’s “Rocky Horror Picture Show”).
Cox admits that “Doubt” is not just another gig. “It’s a different audience,” she said last month during a roundtable discussion with the press. “When you look at Netflix versus network TV, this may reach a little more of middle America. And that’s good.”
Roxanne Anderson, chair of the Minnesota Transgender Health Coalition, agrees: “It just makes the access point that much larger. Laverne is the right person at the right time. Trans women of color have to be the next rally cry. She approaches life with a zest and she puts out this energy that people just want to be close to.”
At first blush, “Doubt” looks to be yet another attempt by Katherine Heigl to regain the fame and goodwill she built in the mid ’00s via “Grey’s Anatomy” and the film “Knocked Up.” This time, she’s a workaholic lawyer who somehow finds the time to fall for her client, a charismatic pediatrician accused of murdering an ex-girlfriend.
But creators Tony Phelan and Joan Rater were adamant about making sure the soapy procedural wasn’t just a star vehicle. They recruited Elliott Gould as the law firm’s eccentric head, “West Wing” veteran Dulé Hill as the company’s voice of reason and Dreama Walker (“Don’t Trust the B---- in Apartment 23”) as a fresh-faced Midwesterner adjusting to big-city life.
But their most critical assignment was finding a transgender actress. In large part that’s because the creators, who are married, have a transgender son.
“We wanted to create a character that was transgender, but wasn’t all about the transition,” Rater said. “Our son is funny, smart and sloppy, all the things he was before he was transgender. That was revelatory to us.”
Cox is not the first transgender actor to be a network series regular. Amiyah Scott is featured on Fox's "Star" but in that Lee Daniels show, her character's gender identity is a focal point of her story arc.
Not so for Cox in "Doubt." The character’s gender is only briefly addressed in the first episode. She’s too busy trying to save “The Subway Pusher” from a lifetime in jail and prove she’s just as capable as Heigl. “We want to show her as complicated, brilliant and wonderful, and see how people respond,” Rater said.
She and Phelan are building on what they learned during their 10 years of writing for “Grey’s Anatomy,” including a story line about two women who had a child together. “By putting those characters in people’s living rooms week after week, they got to know them and like them. That went a long way in, for lack of a better word, normalizing them, letting people see that their relationship was not this threatening, terrible thing.”
The primary pleasure of “Doubt,” at least in early episodes, is seeing Cox show off her dry sense of humor and command of the room without identity issues constantly popping up.
Cox said she’s long wanted to play an attorney, given the profession’s inherent drama and adversarial nature. She also was drawn to the fact that Cameron Wirth has a budding romance.
“Omigod! I’m flirting with a man and I’m not trying to get him to pay me,” she said, before realizing how that might sound. “On TV! I meant on TV.”
Cox was also challenged by the subtleties of the character, especially since the assignment came right after shooting “Rocky Horror,” which called for her to be as flamboyant as possible.
“Cameron has anxiety if she’s losing a case, but she’s someone who holds people accountable and holds herself accountable,” Cox said. “She’s never victimized. She knows her worth. That’s what’s hard to play, because Laverne doesn’t always know her worth.”
Network success could go a long way toward changing that.