Tuesday, September 2, 2008

“Raising the Bar" Lowers the Standards

I had some moderately high hopes for TNT’s new legal drama, “Raising the Bar.” After all, TNT did such a great job with "The Closer." But, my hopes were dashed after watching the premier episode last night on TNT.

It wasn’t horrible, mind you, it was just OK. It had me asking myself, “do we really need another legal drama?” There was something that reminded me a little bit of Dick Wolf’s failed legal drama "Conviction.” They weren’t the same, but there was just something about the feel of “Raising the Bar” that seemed so familiar but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. It could be that the law end of the show left me flat.

I admit that part of my problem is that I have never been a Steven Bonchco fan. I abhorred NYPD Blue and dropped that off my viewing list after the first few episodes. I even tried watching that show again after David Caruso left, and there wasn’t much improvement in my mind, so I don’t think the problem was Caruso.

Because I’m too lazy to recap the episode, here’s a quick snapshot of Ted Cox's summary and observations, from The Daily Herald:

When an assistant district attorney can't stop staring at the chest of one of his underling lawyers, she tells him to put up and drop trou right there in the office or shut up. Of course, he's not her real love interest. According to the TV Critics' Code, I'm not at liberty to reveal just who that would be, but I'll offer a hint: The show stars former "NYPD" studmuffin Mark-Paul Gosselaar. Elsewhere, a prissy defense attorney finds himself working for a jealous convict who cut off another convict's penis. And a law clerk charms the mercurial judge he works for by serving as her boy toy, although in his off hours he's more of a boys' toy.

Remember when it was enough for Bochco to show David Caruso's bare rear end or - worse - Dennis Franz's to be outrageous?

Those more innocent days are gone, however. Bochco is working in cable now, and "Bar" has to be at least as out-there as "Saving Grace," the Holly Hunter police show it is replacing for the time being on TNT. So Bochco borrows a few trashy touches from the Kelley playbook.

Is it mere coincidence that TNT even produced the "Bar" media guide in the form of a legal pad - Kelley's weapon of choice in writing a script?

All that's by way of saying "Bar" will do anything to keep a viewer engaged, but at the same time a viewer knows exactly what it's doing to keep the audience engaged. It's the same old idealistic legal procedural gussied up with a few new truly blue sideshows.

Gosselaar plays Jerry Kellerman, an up-and-coming defense attorney as cocky as he is scruffy. When Melissa Sagemiller's bodacious, blue-eyed ADA Michelle Earnhardt offers his client a sweetheart deal to plead out a rape case (shhh, remember, we're not yet supposed to know they're into each other's briefs), he gets his client to accept it (in a teary scene) even though the client would rather fight for his innocence.

Enter former "Malcolm in the Middle" mom Jane Kaczmarek as the neurotic, egotistic Judge Trudy Kessler, who scotches the plea and forces the lawyers to go to trial. Earnhardt, playing the legal game, fights the good fight even as she all but throws the case, but when the defendant is found guilty of a lesser charge Kessler throws the book at him and gives him more prison time than he would have gotten under the plea. So Kellerman goes ballistic and gets threatened with contempt.

"I'd rather be in jail," he says, "than free and a part of the system that put him there."

"Well, I'm happy to oblige you, counselor," replies Da Judge.

Legal memo to Kellerman: Look, lawyer boy, when your client is innocent, prove it in court, don't whine about the system. It takes a better actor than you - Al Pacino, for instance - to even try to pull off that grandstanding ploy.

Anyway, Kellerman proves to have a loyal ally hidden away in Jonathan Scarfe's Charlie Sagansky, the judge's kissing clerk, and I believe even a clod as clueless as Denny Crane can connect the dots from there.

Some other cast members are along to add spice. Former "ER" doc Gloria Reuben plays Kellerman's boss, and Currie Graham is the ADA with the roving eyes. Teddy Sears of "Ugly Betty" is the style-conscious defense attorney with the prison pickle plucker for a client, and J. August Richards is Marcus McGrath, an idealistic prosecutor who at one point feels compelled to point out, "Even a busted watch is right twice a day."

Bochco helped mold the story, but his new legal-eagle colleague David Feigue wrote the script, so blame him for cliches like that.

"Bar" finds TNT's - and Bochco's - creative juices flagging. It shouldn't keep Holly Hunter's "Grace" from reclaiming its rightful place after "The Closer" when it returns to finish its second season. But I will say this about "Bar:" Even Bochco at his worst is still better than David Kelley at his best.

Well, I think that about says it all. Will I bother to watch “Raising the Bar” again? Probably not. There is going to be too many other shows to watch on Monday nights that “Raising the Bar” will be lowered to the bottom of my list.

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