Here’s what you need to know about Bull, should you be looking for something to discuss with your weird aunt or 90-year-old great-uncle come Thanksgiving: It’s a show loosely based on the early life of Dr. Phil McGraw, the Oprah-sanctioned talk show personality who was once a practicing psychiatrist and trial consultant. It stars Michael Weatherly, who was most recently no. 2 on the call sheet on NCIS, the most successful drama on television. Also, the show’s extremely stupid.
Bull isn’t trying to be a bad show. It just is. That’s probably because it doesn’t know itself. From watching the pilot, it’s evident that the show’s M.O. is taking buzz-worthy aspects of other shows and smooshing them all together into one program, thus attempting to create a new smash out of ingredients from others.
Each episode of Bull follows Weatherly’s Dr. Jason Bull (ugh), a cool-cat character who owns and runs the obviously named Trial Analysis Corporation. There, he’s joined by other intense people with laptops, including characters like Cable (ugh times two) McCrory, who’s billed as a “haughty millennial hacker… responsible for gathering cyber intelligence,” and the over-the-top Chunk (ugh times three) Palmer, “a fashion-conscious stylist and former All-American lineman who fine-tunes clients’ appearances for trial.” Together they toil away in their futuristic-style steel loft space apparently situated in one of New York City’s highest round buildings, putting in 18-hour days for one sole purpose: To psychologically analyze and break down juries to get criminal defendants off, no matter the cost.
In the pilot, said defendant is Brendan Peters, a Pete Wentz-looking party boy who has allegedly killed Alyssa Yang, a straight-A student who also happens to be dealing fake crystal meth. We’re meant to understand he didn’t do it, but also that he’s a rich kid whose dad is forking over millions to hire not only the former U.S. attorney general as Brendan’s lawyer but also Bull and company to figure out that no one on the jury actually likes the attorney general. They do that by creating a “mirror jury” out of average people on the street who almost identically match the actual jurors—again, presumably at some ridiculous cost—paying them to attend the trial, and then analyzing their biometrics and backgrounds. There’s also questionably legal surveillance involved, not that Bull would care, what with his “I get shit done” attitude.
While all of that might seem fairly standard for your average crime procedural—see NCIS, Law & Order: SVU, all of the CSI iterations, God rest their souls, and so on—Bull takes things a step further by attempting to smash internet culture and chatter into its 44 weekly minutes. The show’s pilot opens with YouTube-style talking heads chatting about how everyone’s “innocent until proven guilty” and quickly launches into scenes overlaid with faux-Instagram posts and New York Post headlines. Bull, who Weatherly plays with such a detached air that he might as well be wearing sunglasses, even uses the phrase “too long, didn’t read” at one point, mere minutes after a faux meme appears on screen goofing on the defendant’s bullshit haircut. We’re supposed to come away thinking not only that Bull is, like, a super cool dude, but also that this show just gets the millennial viewer, in a way that something like NCIS might not. The characters even show how down they are with “alternative” lifestyles, urging young Brendan along when he reveals that he’s gay and thus did not kill Alyssa because she wouldn’t have anal sex with him, and noting, after some titillating pictures of another character in a trussed-up bondage position emerge, that, “36 percent of Americans use masks,” handcuffs, and other bondage paraphernalia in the bedroom. “Hey, man,” the show seems to be saying, “who are we, the cast of Bull, to judge what you’re doing in the privacy of your own home?”
While Bull is clearly trying to weave 21st-century “anything goes” culture into its show, it does so in a way that’s so heavy-handed, so obvious, that any millennial or person with half an internet- or socially conscious brain is going to call bullshit on it instantly. Everyone knows that you can’t try to be cool. With Bull, CBS looks like it’s trying to throw a Harambe shirt over its dad bod. Sure, that shirt might technically fit over that portly, liver-spotted stomach, but that doesn’t mean that ol’ CBS has any business wearing it, let alone any idea what it really means.