August 29, 2008

Steven Bochco's New Legal Drama Debuts

Some early reviews are in for Steven Bochco's new legal drama Raising the Bar. Barry Garron of the Hollywood Reporter finds the series, slated to run on TNT, looking like "it had been developed for the CW network. Most of the characters are young lawyers, either public defenders under the tutelage of mother hen Roz Whitman (Gloria Reuben) or fledgling prosecutors under the harsh, cynical thumb of Nick Balco (Currie Graham). They would appear more at home in the Ford Modeling agency waiting room than in Manhattan's gloomy courthouse corridors. As if to emphasize the point, a rotund lawyer appears in the opening scenes of the second episode and is swiftly dispatched by a fatal heart attack. His kind simply is not welcome here." Mr. Garron also seems to find the show a little worn. "Bochco and co-creator David Feige are at their best when they make the story twist and turn over unexpected legal nuances. Too often, though, plots are contrived and coincidental (how many times can Kellerman defend clients against the same prosecutor, who just happens to be his girlfriend?) and lack the wonderful surprises that are trademarks of a Bochco production." Read the entire review here.

But here's what the Wall Street Journal's Nancy DeWolf Smith has to say.
The only real angels here are the public defenders, most prominently Jerry Kellerman (the Heath Ledgerish Mark-Paul Gosselaar). Kindhearted, brave and, above all, idealistic, they are stuck with defending society's victims against the pitiless, and often unethical, prosecutors. In the first three episodes, all of the defendants are either innocents being framed or railroaded by the judge/prosecutors, or sympathetic characters struggling with major problems and facing punishment all out of proportion with their transgressions.

Typical is a case with "To Kill a Mockingbird" vibes, in which the defendant is a young black student who was lured to the home of a trashy white classmate, seduced by her and then threatened by her white boyfriend until he fought back. Even the prosecutor knows that the defendant is no criminal, but in the world of "Raising the Bar" the deeply flawed justice system must nail him to the wall.

Mr. Bochco has felt compelled to claim that the series takes no side between prosecutors and public defenders, that it gives "equal time to both points of view." Equal screen time may be accurate; yet the images that persist are of defense lawyer Jerry agonizing about his innocent, upstanding (minority) client facing the slammer for rape -- while in another office, a white-goddess prosecutor gyrates teasingly on the lap of her smarmy and cynical white boss.
Read her review here.

Finally, the New York Daily News' David Hinckley finds the show entertaining as "straight drama." He notes, "what seems to interest Bochco more, at least in this opening episode, is something about the system itself, the system that sets the unspoken rules under which Kellerman and the typically large ensemble Bochco cast are working. That "something" involves conflicts of interest, mixed loyalties and hidden agendas. In the world of "Raising the Bar," the justice system is a club where everybody knows each other, or is only one degree of separation removed. The characters freely acknowledge this, and have developed a mantra to deal with it: What happens outside the courtroom doesn't matter. Once the judge takes the bench and everyone is seated, the fact the defense attorney knows the prosecutor, or maybe has dated the prosecutor, becomes irrelevant. Justice has its own strict procedures and the outcome of a case is determined solely by the execution of those procedures. All of which, Bochco seems to suggest, is a lie....The pivotal moment that determines the ultimate outcome of the case - whether a man everyone agrees is innocent must still go to jail - revolves around a scene that's subtly filmed, but so cynical and so shockingly unprofessional it will make viewers want to wash their hands." Read his review here.

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