Bayside High Never Prepared Me for This
"Raising the Bar" / Dustin Rowles
TV Reviews | September 1, 2008 | Comments ()
There is absolutely nothing you can really add to a legal drama that hasn’t already been done to the point of tedium. When a dancing baby showed up on “Ally McBeal” back in the late 90s, the legal drama — as a television genre — had somersaulted over the shark and landed in the cobwebbed sarcophagus of Perry Mason. And yet, legal dramas still clutter the television landfill, though most these days are, thankfully, quick to die. Indeed, the best any legal drama can hope for now is to slide through the well-worn grooves of its predecessors with a little panache.
By far, the best legal shows are those that are driven by the cases and not by the relationship dramas between the characters, though you are nevertheless wise to choose a strong cast. “Law & Order,” obviously, is the gold standard. It’s managed to survive as long as it has (18 years and counting) because there are no running storylines, very few character-centered dramas, and because each episode is self-contained, focusing on one case. Having Jerry Orbach, Jesse L. Martin, and Sam Waterston, among a few others, didn’t hurt (it’s no coincidence that “L&O” began to struggle when Orbach left the show, and whoever thought to cast Anthony Anderson to replace should be donkey-punched in the ear). David E. Kelley, on the other hand, has mastered the first three seasons of the genre: He creates satisfying legal dramas that run through every conceivable legal issue and then flounder in their fourth seasons and beyond because the focus then turns on the characters instead of the cases (see, e.g., last year’s fourth season of the once brilliant “Boston Legal” which began showing signs of fatigue).
Likewise, TNT’s newest entry into the genre, “Raising the Bar” (Mondays, 10 p.m.), began showing signs of fatigue before the pilot had even ended. The show comes from Steven Bochco, who has done enough legal dramas (and procedurals) now (“Murder One,” “L.A. Law,” “NYPD Blue,” etc. etc. ad infinitum) that he, like Kelley, can simply recycle plotlines with new characters and call it a new show (the pilot episode, in fact, borrows heavily from a case from the first season of “Murder One”). “Raising the Bar,” which is about former law school classmates who face each other in court as prosecutors and public defenders, fancies itself one of those gritty legal dramas that deals in ethical grey areas. For my money, while the first season of “Murder One” did this fantastically, the second season of “The Practice” was the grittiest, most ethically challenged of them all — there was enough grit in that season to brew coffee. “Raising the Bar,” on the other hand, is just a glossy knock-off, a half-assed pretender. It’s flavored Sanka. Lukewarm.
Worse still, it doesn’t know for sure what direction it wants to take yet, as it mixes its “grittiness” with a lot of that insufferable “Grey’s Anatomy”-type relationship turmoil. A prosecutor and public defender are making out! A clerk is sexing up the judge! Oooooh! Someone is gay! Rich white guy wants to get into a working-class black woman’s skivvies. Look at all that manufactured drama! Doesn’t it make you wanna fuck something! Like a light socket?
It’s really rather unpleasant. And the pilot episode’s actual case doesn’t inspire confidence in the future of the show (though, it’s on TNT, so whatever episodes have been produced will be aired, ratings be damned). The case involves an innocent man accused of rape; the public defender (“Saved by the Bell’s” Zach Morris) is trying to get him off; the prosecutor (“Sleeper Cell’s” creamy, delicious Melissa Sagemiller) is trying to prosecute him despite the shaky evidence. Also, the judge (“Malcolm in the Middle’s”) Jane Kaczmarek is fruit-loops crazy, all of which leads toward some sort of ethical dilemma we’re supposed to give a shit about. Mostly, we don’t.
To the extent that we do, however, it’s because of the cast, most of whom deserve a better hand than the show they’ve been dealt. The script is atrocious, the directing (from Bochco’s son, Jesse) is embarrassing, and the entire tone is wildly uneven. But, Sagemiller is delightful to look at (and she holds her own), Kaczmarek is a brilliant television actress and always decent enough to watch, and Zach Morris — despite the incredibly greasy, long hair that you’re dying to take a brush and some Pantene to — is one of those comfort actors who, despite a lack of actual acting talent, wins you over based purely on familiarity and likability. It’s impossible to dislike Zach Morris; it’s like disliking Michael J. Fox. And only Communists dislike Michael J. Fox.
Still, not even Morris (oh, fine: Gosselaar) and the rest of the eye-pleasing cast is enough to make “Raising the Bar” worth watching. But then again, you probably knew that from the pun in the title.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives in Portland, Maine. You can reach him via email, or leave a comment below.