Thursday, August 31, 2006

TV: Bruckheimer Bites the Hand That Feeds Him With Justice

As I watched the debut of Jerry Bruckheimer's newest crime/legal drama, Justice, last night, I found myself wistfully thinking of the premiere episode of CSI. I was remembering that wonderful lighter moment when Gil Grissom looked into the morgue and shouted at the dead bodies, "You assholes!"

If only Jerry Bruckheimer remembered that.

Justice purports to portray the other side of the equation from Bruckheimer's other crime/legal dramas, which focus on the investigation and prosecution of crimes. The show revolves around a top-gun defense team and its efforts to get its clients acquitted, and then it throws in a hook by showing what really happened--the part "the jury never gets to see." The premiere episode revolves around the death of a woman married to an adoring cuckold who's a little too naïve to believed. She's rich and unfaithful, so naturally, her husband is the first and ultimately the only suspect. He proclaims his innocence, and because there's money in the family, he hires a high-test law firm to represent him. As the premise suggests, you really don't know what happened--and neither do any of the characters--until the revelation in the final minute or so of the ep.

Declaring my bias, I have to say that I'm about crime drama-ed out. I remain loyal to CSI, but its various spinoffs and ripoffs strike me as pale imitations these days. Then again, it's hard to call anything about Justice pale--it's too harshly in-your-face for that. Bruckheimer's shows have tended to become more and more grim--gone are the days when any regular character is going to put on a swami's hat or rush out the door for a cockroach race, and Justice is no exception to that trend.

The draw for me was Victor Garber, who I loved in Alias. I doubt I would've bothered if he hadn't been involved, as the fact that this show turned up on FOX, rather than CBS, made me think it probably had been rejected by brass at a network better known for, well, taste. The quality on FOX has been improving, with a lineup that includes truly great shows like 24 and House, but the network remains better known for cheap stunts like Skating With the Stars. One must wonder when a "name" like Bruckheimer shows up there.

I have mixed feelings about Justice. I had the same reaction I would have if I saw a car crash that looked truly awful but in which no one was seriously hurt: initial horror, and then relief that it wasn't worse. The series concept is intriguing, but the premiere episode is relentlessly cynical, playing to our suspicions that lawyers don't give a rat's ass about what's right. It hammers us with the message that lawyers only care about winning cases and making money. No, wait--there's one lawyer on the "TNT & G" team who claims to need to know his clients are innocent, Kerr Smith's character (Tom Nicholson), but Smith's boy-scout act isn't very convincing. In the few moments when you can believe his protestations at all, he comes off like a three-year-old in a shark pool. If you're looking for the good guys, change the channel.

There are bad guys, however, and they're the media, the police and prosecutors, who are portrayed here as grasping, corrupt and incompetent. The DA leaks lies and goes back on his word; the investigating police officer loses evidence and doesn't bother to check on his suspect's story because he's already decided he knows what happened before he bothers to for the truth. I'll buy that there are bad cops and district attorneys, but I certainly wasn't expecting this harsh an indictment from a series created by a guy who gives away Chevy Tahoes to law enforcement agencies.

It's no surprise that Garber's character, the camera-hungry spin-monger Ron Trott, is the most interesting of the bunch. His job is to combat trial by media by engaging in aggressive defense by media. You can think of Ron Trott as the anti-Jack Bauer: Jack does bad things for the right reasons, while Ron does the right things for the most venal of reasons. I'm curious whether the writers ever plan to show us what really drives him and/or how he got to be such a gold-plated jerk.

Strangely, however, the moral ambiguity that permeates this episode evaporated at the moment when the "truth" was revealed: the husband's innocent. He was upstairs kissing their daughter goodnight when his wife suffered a tragic accident. I can only speculate that somebody feared this whole story was just too O.J. to be likeable and decided the ep could only be saved by showing the defense team had gotten it right, however accidentally. I would've liked the ep better if the husband had been involved in her death in some way. It would've felt more consistent with the overall tone of the episode.

In the end, I liked it well enough to try it again...until Lost, which inhabits the same time slot, returns for season 3.

FOX premiered another crime drama last week, Vanished, about an FBI team investigating the abduction of a senator's wife. I'd recommend Vanished only to individuals with severe cases of chronic ADD--it's all flash and speed and no substance, with the thinnest of characterizations and plot twists that only work if you don't think about them for more than a split second. Besides, in the current hang-'em-all political climate, who really cares about a senator's wife?

I'll be very surprised if either series has long legs.