Sunday, September 03, 2006

TV: Swift Justice

Do you like to watch TV? Do you like to watch TV watch TV? Jerry Bruckheimer has squeezed out another and this one airs on Fox Wednesday nights. It's called Justice and that must be a joke like the ads which proclaim it's "From Acclaimed Producer Jerry Bruckheimer."

Bruckheimer's in a bit of pickle. Short of CSI: Bathroom Monitor, what's he left to do? Monitor: "It would appear the errant urine poured out of a young male suffering from hypospadia. We're on it." At this point, the franchise is feeling like Weekend At Bernies Part 37. What else can he offer? He tried a sitcom and it failed.

What he really, really wants to be is David E. Kelley. He wants to be critically admired and dreams that impossible dream daily. Impossible not just because he'll never live down Thief of Hearts, but also because he doesn't have the chops. As demonstrated repeatedly throughout his career (most infamously on Dangerous Minds when he cut out all the footage of Lou Ann's personal life), when something may not be working or doesn't test well, his first instinct (and last, he's high-impulse) is to jettison it. Just pull it out. Don't work on it, don't attempt to fix it, just pull it out, turn the soundtrack volume up higher and assume no one will ever notice the gaping holes in so many of his films.

He's gotten away with it enough times that now he wants to construct a TV show that way intentionally. Justice plays like a sports reel on the evening news. It's nothing but highlights.
Now if you missed your favorite game, the highlights might actually offer you some comfort, but we're willing to bet you'd still prefer the game itself if given a choice.

Not Bruckheimer. He just wants the big moments. So he's built this new show around little else. Watching Justice, you wonder, if he got his hands on Shakespeare at this point, would Romeo & Juliet consist of a few lines from the balconey scene and a few bits of the suicide. All the moments that build to those scenes, that enrich the lines? He doesn't care.

Justice is about four partners in a high-priced, high-profile law firm.. Like every other concept (high concept) that's occupied his empty mind, this one is overblown in every way -- from acting to sets. Jan de Bont may have been known for screaming, "Bigger! Bigger!" at actors, but Bruckheimer wants it in everything. Trott, Nicholson, Tuller & Graves isn't just any law firm, it's the law firm to have when you're wealthy and accused of a high profile crime which must be why the firm is housed in what appears to be a sparsely decorated airplane hanger. ("Bigger! Bigger!")

Victor Garber needs all that room to showcase the worst over acting since Joan Crawford decided to spin a disc in Sudden Fear. He barks, he chin thursts, he hollers, he glowers, he exists with flourish. He does all that over and over, so often, that you start hoping someone swapped the Duracell batteries on this Ever-Ready Bunny.

Garber's not the only one who can't find a calm moment with both hands and eyes wide open.
Eamonn Walker has a very uncomfortable scene (as Luther Graves) with an extra he walks through the law office halls. Possibly because the writing never provides connections between characters, Walker can't stop touching and trying to touch the man he's attempting to get information out of in an effort to provide some sort of connection between the two characters. Walker is African-American and this is TV Bruckheimer, so that's his only really big scene. Two other (White) lawyers at the firm will have big moments in court, not Luther Graves.

Rebecca Mader stands around a lot with eyes widened. It gets old quickly. She's suppoed to be playing Alden Tuller but we really think she's playing "I almost look like Lori Singer but I come much cheaper." Mader's performance repeatedly demonstrates that you get what you pay for.

Kerr Smith plays Tom Nicholson. Since he's both White and male, he gets more to do than Walker and Mader combined. He's supposed to be the trial attorney who can win the unwinnable cases, who has a special rapport with the juries. They trust him and instinctively root for him. Apparently the juries are made of Wendys taken with this Peter Pan which would explain the comical hair style. (Even Sandy Duncan eventually dropped it.) But what adds further to the comedy is that his mini-fringe bangs sometimes are straight, sometimes are slighlty curled, sometimes cover his forehead and sometime have a huge space as one portion of bangs is swept to the side. These styling bits come not over a span of time, but while he's in the courtroom. Though he's providing a nightmare for anyone trying to track continuity, it could probably make for a good drinking game.

Unintended laughs is all Smith has to offer. Looking like a young Harry Potter and exhaling so much earnestness that you fear he may rip a hole into the ozone, Smith bring to Fox the acting chops he so obviously honed at the WB (Dawson's Creek, Charmed).

Supposedly, Smith's Tom can get anyone off (in the court room) and that's a bit hard to buy. If he has a public repuation for that (and the character does), at some point don't you think that most jurors would grasp "This is the guy who always gets them off?" and therefore begin to assume that all of Tom's clients are guilty? Wouldn't you think that his reputation would be a liability once he'd built a name (and been given a nickname/tag from the press)?

Well you're thinking too much! This is Jerry Bruckheimer. If he couldn't force audiences to deliver a positive verdict on his lousy films (Gone in 60 Seconds, Pearl Harbor, et al), he can at least create a world where the jury usually finds in his favor. Tom's a stand-in for Bruckheimer and the character he cares most about when he's 'involved' with this show.

The blustering, belicose Ron Trott? Don Simpson. You grasp that in many ways but most of all when Tom/Jerry says that a "little of Ron goes a long way." Instead of deals and movies, the new version of Simpson & Bruckheimer concentrates on law which, if you remember Simpson and are familiar with Bruckheimer, means they concentrate a great deal on getting good/favorable verdicts. This being TV, it actually happens.

When you grasp that Garber's a Simpson stand-in, you begin to grasp the workings of the show. Male bonding and, at some point, Tom/Jerry's going to have to go up against Ron/Don.

In the meantime, Garber works without a net-- or any apparent modesty. One of the most irritating features of the show is watching a TV. Garber's on television being interviewed frequently on a show called something like American Justice. He has to reign it in a bit on those TV appearances -- that the characters watch as you watch them . . . watching. It's supposed to provide some form of media commentary and provide laughs. It doesn't.

It just reminds you of how well Elaine May navigated this terrain with throw-aways in The Birdcage. Her droppings are Bruckheimer's (fools) gold and the show actually comes to a stand still anytime he can make you watch the characters watch TV.

There are many problems with the program but the obvious one is that, like Victor Garber's performance, there's no where left to go. The show starts out with a high profile case of a man accused of killing his wife. If you're thinking, "Nicole Simpson was O.J.'s ex-wife," rest assured that and skin color are about all that's been changed. They even trot out golf clubs. As in O.J.'s case, the police fail to examine everything allowing the defense to rip a huge hole into their case.

For those who missed the show (lucky) and are thinking, "Okay, so it started off showy. That's not a problem." Yes, it is. The show needs to be showy. They're doing high profile cases week after week. This isn't The Practice or Boston Legal. There are no human interest stories. The law firm is set up for the high profile case.

The show is set up so that each case is tried and a verdict delivered in every episode. (Premature Justice?) The verdict comes before the end of the show so that the final moments can be used to show the audience what really happened -- which might make some sense if these were actual real life stories. But the whole conceit of delivering a verdict and then, after, allowing the audience to know what really happpened makes no sense at all when you are dealing with supposedly fictional stories that zip along so fast that you honestly don't care.

The show makes no sense. Not when actors repeat one another's dialogue in the same scene, not when the firm suffers none of the backlash Johnnie Cochran had to go through, not when Garber bounds in and out of scenes offering advice that no one takes. (If he really were the legal guru he's said to be, wouldn't one of the partners be listening to him?)

Somewhere after Ron's provided a for-show itinerary for their disgusted client (who doesn't intend to visit his wife's grave with his daughter in tow for show -- if he does end up following the itinerary, the audience never sees him doing it), Tom explains that the highest compliment one lawyer could give another is that s/he would hire them if s/he needed a lawyer.
He says that of Ron and then explains that Ron's not being hired to be liked.

While they may draw in the clients, will it draw in viewers? What works in the legal world doesn't necessarily work on television. On television, you have to feel something for the main characters. Ron leaves you cold -- or rushing for the Tylenol. If he's not shouting at the top of his lungs, he's delivering dialogue with a smarmy smile (especially when he's being interviewed).
It's all too much and serves only to make you appreciate what William J. Shatner has done with his legal drama role.

In fairness to Garber, sports reel highlights don't usually convey complexity and clip-art's yet to make it into any respectable museum. While that may explain the limitations of his performance, it doesn't explain why he or anyone else involved decided to take part in this travesty of television drama.

Nor does it excuse it.

If there is TV justice may it be meted out in the same manner of this show and Justice find itself swiftly cancelled.
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