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Good Television is for Suckers

By Dustin Rowles | TV | September 29, 2010 |

By Dustin Rowles | TV | September 29, 2010 |

For those of you fortunate enough never have been in a courtroom, allow me to disabuse you a just a small fraction of the many fictions that courtroom dramas spin: 1) Lawyers stammer. It’s strange given the reputation that lawyers have as very well-spoken, eloquent people, but there are a lot of lawyers who stammer; 2) The acoustics in all courtrooms are crap. When you speak, there’s an echo affect. In most courtrooms, it’s difficult to hear unless you speak loudly; and 3) There’s nearly as much paper shuffling, awkward pauses, and throat clears as there is testimony.

It’s a decidedly unglamorous setting, too, and yet — along with the cop and doctor shows — it’s the most popular setting for a television show. You will rarely see an attempt at a real legal documentary, one that films lawyers in action because it is excruciatingly dull, and most of it boils down to simple legal research and the exchange of telephone calls. Not exactly high drama.

“The Defenders” is one of this pilot season’s attempts to mine the legal profession, and it is as generic and by-the-numbers as any legal drama you’re likely to see. There’s no spin; there’s no angle; there’s nothing at all that separates it from every other legal drama, least of all its decidedly uncharismatic leads, Jerry O’Connell and Jim Belushi, and the fact that it takes place in Vegas. The pilot episode focuses on the sort of case you’ve seen a hundred times in a hundred different legal dramas: A murder suspect opts not to take a plea and, instead, take his chances with the jury. The case turns on some bullshit factual evidence, discovered during the trial, instead of discovery, where it should have been uncovered. In the end, the big legal “trick” is that the lawyers decide not to give the jury an involuntary manslaughter instruction, forcing them to choose either murder or not guilty, knowing that the jury doesn’t have the heart to convict the suspect of actual murder and will let him go free without the option of a lesser charge.

That’s it, folks. That’s the pilot episode of “The Defenders,” plus Jurnee Smollett (“Friday Night Lights,”) a first-year attorney figuring it out as she goes, and Natalie Zea (“Justified”) as O’Connell’s love interest slash occasional legal opponent. There is no dynamic to this show. It doesn’t aspire to enough to fail; it just is. It’s a legal drama right out of the legal drama playbook. I’ll give it this, though: while it doesn’t look like a real courtroom, it delivers the same banal essence of actually watching a case unfold, only the tedium is condensed down to 44 agonizing minutes.

Oh, and of course, it was the third highest-rated premiere of the season. Because no one wants to be challenged when they watch television. They just want to watch staid characters go through the predictable motions while they wait for the music to swell and hear the not guilty verdict rendered. The good news, however, is that if you’re not watching “The Defenders,” you don’t have to worry that you’re missing anything.

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.