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Television legal drama addresses personal costs of coming out
by Matt Simonette

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Bluff City Law, a recently-launched NBC legal drama portraying a social justice-focused Memphis attorney ( Jimmy Smits ) and his firm, has been depicting the the personal stakes for a middle-aged lesbian who is a senior partner at the firm.

That character, Della Bedford, is portrayed by Jayne Atkinson, an actor who is perhaps best known for her role as Catherine Durant in the Netflix drama House of Cards. Della, who hailed from a wealthy family came out relatively later in life, after having after having already been married and establishing a family.

"She got married and did the expected thing from her," said Lisa Morales, who is both a producer and is on Bluff City Law's writing staff. "Then, somewhere around her late-30s, she decided that she had to be true to herself. That's how the character was conceived. We thought it would be interesting to get to know a woman who is older, rather, than [for example] a 25 year-old millennial dealing with these issues.

In particular, the Oct. 29 episode, entitled "The All-American," which was written by Morales, used Della's relationship with her son to frame a larger story about sacrifices family members make when another member makes an all-consuming commitment. Della, now happily married to another woman, is receiving an honor from the LGBT community at an event which her son refuses to attend. His hesitance stems not from disapproval of her new life, but rather, his reluctance to dignify parts of Della's life—her work and activism—that had ultimately diminished the relationship between them.

Morales emphasized that it was important to root the family conflict not in outright homophobia, but in more nuanced emotional issues.

"We wanted to show that, while [the central characters] are a team of legal warriors, there is a whole village of people behind them while they go out there and fight the good fight," explained Morales.

Atkinson, a veteran of numerous television and film programs, said that Della stands in contrast to many of her other roles.

"Most of the women I play are powerful women—you don't get to see them smile a lot," she added. "You don't get to see them be funny. You don't get to see them be sassy. You don't get to see the heart in action as we do with Della."

Atkinson felt that the decision to write Della as a mother provided "a compelling, dramatic story for me, because [coming out] is a very difficult thing to do, but especially when there are children involved. I think it happens more than we know, especially with older women."

She especially enjoyed the Oct. 29 episode's denouement, where, in her acceptance speech, Della discusses the sacrifices that family sometimes make on behalf of their loved ones as her son weighs whether or not to step inside.

"You have that beautiful contrast," Atkinson said. "Della enters that ceremony with joy, with her wife," which plays out against her son's introspection. "Perhaps the timing sucked for when she came out. Perhaps she could have waited longer. As a parent, when you sense that something you've done has been difficult for your child, you're going to question yourself."

Atkinson spoke highly of her Bluff City Law colleagues, all of whom have relocated to Memphis for the show's production. They gather at her home for viewing parties of each week's episode, she said, and refer to her as "Mother Della."

"I'm very proud of Jayne, and that speech at the end," said Morales, who added that Atkinson and the entire cast are "so committed to making the show as good as possible." NBC has now broadcast seven episodes in Bluff City Law's initial 10-episode order, and Morales hopes there will be network renewal somewhere down the line.

"Give us a shot for a second season, so we can keep telling these stories about such important topics," Morales added.

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