TV Review: Verdict is in on 'Justice'
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Starring: Victor Garber, Kerr Smith.
You don't have to be a brilliant surgeon to see the effect "House" has had on the fall 2006 TV lineup. Two new lawyer dramas borrow the "House" formula: Take one grumpy but brilliant middle-aged guy and surround him with eager young 'uns.
CBS's "Shark," starring James Woods, is the higher profile show (it premieres next month), but Fox's "Justice" (9 p.m. Wednesday) is the first "House"-like lawyer show out of the gate.
Like "Shark," "Justice" is a slick, engaging take on the "House" formula. The pieces may be familiar, but there are enough new elements that prevent this series from feeling like a total rip-off.
Victor Garber, most recently the star of ABC's "Alias," turns up the cranky/arrogant factor as Ron Trott, the media-spinning face of Los Angeles law firm Trott, Nicholson, Tuller & Graves (TNT&G for short).
Trott barks, snarls and snaps, but we're supposed to excuse it because he's a master media manipulator who will fight just as hard for guilty clients as he will for the innocent. Actually, Trott doesn't really care to know whether his clients did the deeds they're charged with. It's young associate Tom "the all-American face of not guilty" Nicholson (Kerr Smith, "Dawson's Creek") who frets over the verdict in this week's series premiere.
"You do better when you think they're innocent," Trott tells Nicholson. "It's a weakness."
The case involves a wealthy man accused of murdering his wife; the defense says she slipped and fell in a terrible accident. At the end of each week's episode, after the jury has rendered its verdict, "Justice" will show viewers what actually happened. Executive producer Jonathan Shapiro ("The Practice," "Boston Legal") promises that sometimes the guilty will go free and the innocent will be convicted in future episodes.
Legal shows are a dime a dozen, but the "Justice" pilot explores the media's role in creating a circus-like atmosphere for big trials. There's even a Nancy Grace-like (i.e. obnoxiously opinionated) news anchor who hates Trott but invites him on her show ("It's her act," Trott explains of her tendency to pre-convict his clients. "She does it to get ratings.").
Shapiro said that element is what differentiates "Justice."
"The show is really about trying to consider the relationship between the media in these high-profile cases and the law," he said last month at a Fox press conference in Pasadena, Calif. "[It's about] how lawyers have to be very mindful of the fact that the media is an important player in these cases."
The pilot makes that much clear. When Trott's client is about to meet the press for the first time, he warns him, "Right now your guilt or innocence is determined by a 60-second video bite on CNN."
But Shapiro also said "Justice" will rely on the basics of a legal case: Telling a story the jury will buy into.
"When you learn how to try a case, the first thing they teach you is you must tell the jury a story," said Shapiro, who practiced law before writing for TV. "The side that tells the most compelling story wins."
The "Justice" premiere suffers from a few typical pilot indulgences (overly expository dialogue), including too few shades of gray in the characters: Trott is too gruff without reason (at least Dr. House has a heart buried somewhere deep) and Nicholson too pure. Supporting characters Alden Tuller (Rebecca Mader) and Luther Graves (the great Eamonn Walker of "Oz") come across as placeholders for characters that may be developed later.
But "Justice" pays attention to details in ways that feel right. During jury selection, Nicholson explains to his client that it's not a politically correct process after the jury consultant casually notes, "Hispanic women, especially old ones, have empathy levels that are off the charts."
"Justice" will continue to serve up stories worth watching if it allows intriguing, specific, salient bits of the legal process to have a trial by TV jury.
First Published August 27, 2006 12:00 am