First of all, the show tries too hard. From the opening cityscape montage (do we really need to see
contrived exciting scenes of New York City again?) to the stop-trick filming to show actors either leaving or entering a scene, Bar wants to be recognized as A Hot New Show. But it’s more bits and pieces of what we’ve already seen.
Raising the Bar is written and produced by Steven Bochco, and on paper, this bodes well. He has a proven resume, no argument there. We loved our Hill Street Blues (I used to have an accounting professor that cautioned at the end of every class, “Hey, be careful out there”) our L.A. Law, and our NYPD Blue. And by now, I’m sure he’s been forgiven the barrel-of-monkeys fun that was Cop Rock. So, absolutely we are talking about some decent Hollywood street cred.
However there are some obstructions to TV justice at work here.
First of all, it’s not clear that Bochco has figured out what story he wants to tell. Is it a legal coming-of-age story, where a gaggle of law student buddies find themselves on the opposite sides of the courtroom and haven’t yet figured out that there was bound to be friction? Is it a cry for court reform? While it is possible – and desirable even – to have layers, subplots, and more than one idea being thrown out there, Raising the Bar does not seem sure of itself.
And the dialogue tends be clichéd; bits like: “…put this in the ‘win’ column, and move on…” or, “I’d rather be in jail with Calvin, than free and part of a system that put him there!” are wince-inducing. Also, many of the characterizations are one dimensional or trite. Law clerk Charlie (Jonathan Scarfe, ER, Commander in Chief) has a “secret”, but in the year 2008 it’s more of a yawn than a gasp when the secret is finally revealed. Jane Kaczmarek (Malcolm in the Middle, The Simpsons) as Judge Trudy Kessler is quite the frightful, predictable bitch. I think we’d all prefer to see Malcolm’s mom Lois wearing the robes; at least she had a sense of fairness at the end of the day. Kaczmarek does fine though, with what she’s been given.
The rest of the cast is adequate as well; we can start to forget that Mark-Paul Gosselaar (Saved by the Bell, NYPD Blue, John from Cincinnati) once sported California boy looks. The character he plays is still Happy Shiny on the inside, a little too earnest to be terribly believable. And interestingly, Gosselaar’s character, public defender Jerry Kellerman, is dressed in lighter colors than the rest of the cast. Either it’s meant to symbolize his Dudley Do-Right qualities, or the fact that Kellerman can only afford one cheap, wrinkled suit. Gloria Reuben (Homicide: Life on the Street, Law and Order: SVU, ER) is underused as the head of the public defender's office, at least through the first several episodes. We don’t see much of Currie Graham (NYPD Blue, Boston Legal, Men in Trees) either as ruthless ADA Nick Balco, but when he is on screen, he’s compelling.
Raising the Bar is not without merit, however. A recurrent theme is the victimization of the minority, lower class, welfare mother underdog. Although this can get old, it bears attention. One of the more intriguing story lines is when one of Kellerman’s clients, a paranoid schizophrenic (well portrayed by Shane Johnson) is accused of mugging a tourist. There is much discussion and legal wrangling, and during the whole process, we are awakened to the plight of the mentally ill and how difficult it is for them to traverse not only a distorted legal system but medical bureaucratic BS as well.
Some moments resonate better than others. When an ADA is lecturing one of his attorneys about botching a case, it feels genuine. Another episode has some sober and near chilling moments, when Will Cooper, the mentally ill, would-be camera snatcher, describes when he finally realized the extent of his disease. “When I opened my eyes, the snow was blue, it was falling… blue, all around me… so beautiful… and it meant that I was finally, truly crazy. My mind and I had gone our separate ways.”
Many successful and beloved shows, comedies and dramas alike, have had some rough starts. If Bochco raises the bar on Bar, perhaps it’ll be given a stay of execution.
Raising the Bar premieres on TNT, Monday, September 1 at 10:00 PM, EDT.