(Debuts tonight at 10 p.m. EST on TNT)
So there's this city, and there's this tall building, and there's this well-appointed office populated by public defenders with funky haircuts and casual business clothes. And that's our introduction to Raising The Bar, TNT's nondescript entry into the courtroom drama genre.
There's a lot that feels wrong about Raising The Bar, starting with the presence of Stephen Bochco's name above the title. Even on his previous failed shows, the Bochco name usually stood for a modicum of innovation, intelligence, and verisimilitude. But Raising The Bar is sparse of plot, slack of pace, and looks slapped-together. Even the sets are too large, making them look more like unimaginatively dressed soundstages than the courtrooms and meeting rooms where idealistic young New Yorkers fight for justice. (The woman in charge of the public defender's office does get a "Make Love Not War" sticker on her wall to signify her liberal hippie principles, though the woman is played by the 44-year-old Gloria Reuben, so her personal Summer Of Love would've taken place around 1982.)
Given that it's the home of cable's top-rated drama series, The Closer, the suits at TNT are clearly aware that they don't have to reinvent the wheel to draw viewers. The Closer is a standard-issue police procedural with virtually no kinks in its style or its characters, but the show's mysteries are well-written, its supporting cast is likable, and it makes good use of its Los Angeles locations. If Raising The Bar boasted similar virtues, I might be be on-board with it. I'm a sucker for a good courtroom drama. Sometimes when I'm hanging around my house, I'll spontaneously mutter "objection" or "tortious interference" or "voir dire," even if I'm just making dinner. ("This soggy green pepper has been stricken for cause!")
I appreciate that pilot for Raising The Bar keeps the stylistic flash to a minimum and instead jumps right into its main case: a hot-button affair involving a black man falsely accused of rape by a white woman, the latter of whom only examined a single suspect photo. But everything about the way the case plays out is too familiar, from the defendant's refusal to take a plea ("I've got to show my kids that I'm innocent!") to his lawyer being tossed in jail for contempt of court when he disagrees with how the judge is handling the case.
In fact the only somewhat random element of the Raising The Bar pilot is that judge, played by Jane Kaczmarek as a petty tyrant who thinks that lawyers who care about their clients are misguided fools who should be put in their place, and that all anyone in the legal profession should care about is "process… process." Kaczmarek is suitably villainous, though there's nothing in her irritating single-mindedness that hasn't already been a character trait of judges on L.A. Law and The Practice–two shows that even at their lowest ebb had more energy and purpose than Raising The Bar.
Those older shows also have better casts. Raising The Bar's assortment of bland multi-ethnic types is anchored by Mark-Paul Gosselaar as a long-haired rebel who says things like, "I'd rather be in jail with my client than be part of a system that put him there!" On the opposite side of the courtroom is spitfire prosecutor Melissa Sagemiller, who fends off the sexual advances of her Kevin-Spacey-look-alike co-worker by giving as good as she gets, and who is described by her boss as being much like her preferred coffee order: "Light, sweet, with just a hint of bitterness." The fact that Gosselaar and Sagemiller–and really everyone on the prosecuting and defending teams–are close friends who've known each other since law school is a mildly interesting wrinkle, though not interesting enough to excuse boilerplate lines like, "The truth should never be an embarrassment to this office!"
Want to talk truth? Here's some that shouldn't be too embarrassing, or surprising: This show isn't very good.
-Or maybe I'm just gumpy because the rape case in this episode should never have gone to trial. At least not TV trial–I don't know anything about how the real world works.
-This show is co-produced by Dayna Bocho, and the pilot was directed by Jesse Bochco. Bochco Bocho Bocho.
-TNT sent along two other episodes and I watched half of the second one. It's slightly better than the pilot from a storytelling perspective–more fluid, less thudding–but still nothing special. It does look like the series' closeted gay character is going to get more decadent in his illicit sexual adventures, so that's something.
-Fun fact, courtesy of Sagemiller's lecherous co-worker: According to the judge in Santucci v. Sussman, "Even unusually vivid descriptions of foodstuffs do not, as a matter of law, constitute harassment for purposes of a Title 7 claim."
(Debuts tonight at 10 p.m. EST on TNT)