Beyond the enticement of the former "ER" thesp wearing stilettos instead of scrubs, the darkness surrounding her brilliant but troubled defense attorney has a musty odor, its pleasures largely beginning and ending with the star.
Actors always love the big, chewy courtroom scenes that come with playing criminal lawyers, and Julianna Margulies gets a doozy of one in the “Canterbury’s Law” premiere — a “Perry Mason”-style cross-examination that concludes with a right-cross. Yet beyond the enticement of the former “ER” thesp wearing stilettos instead of scrubs, the darkness surrounding her brilliant but troubled defense attorney has a musty odor, its pleasures largely beginning and ending with the star. OK, so it worked for “House” (and to a lesser degree, “Shark”), but the evidence still suggests it’s a flimsy case for appointment viewing.
Viewers meet Margulies’ Elizabeth Canterbury in the midst of an extramarital tryst, right before she psyches herself up to defend a young man accused in the sensational disappearance of a child. To the prosecutor (“Oz’s” Terry Kinney), she’s a “bottom-feeding bitch,” one who browbeats her small legal team and squabbles with her associate Russell (“Angels in America’s” Ben Shenkman), who worries that they should plead out their client as he looks to be seriously guilty.
Like Glenn Close’s protagonist in “Damages,” Canterbury is a complex personality. As created by Dave Erickson, though (under the stewardship of producers Denis Leary and Jim Serpico), her underlying demons are disappointingly mundane. Nor does Aidan Quinn have enough to do, initially, as her cuckolded husband, in an hour that plays like “Law & Order,” only from the defense attorney’s perspective — a ploy with which Fox failed as recently as “Justice.”
Then again, the challenge of casting a series around a character like Canterbury should hardly be a surprise: In a “Nancy Grace” world, few vocations inspire less sympathy, which is why if this latest litigator has any chance, it’s entirely predicated on the audience buying into Margulies’ character — a woman who’s smart, sexy but profoundly unhappy — in a big way.
Based on a subsequent episode, however, the backstory feels thin, and even with its gritty tone and a serialized plot thread that loops back to the first case, the hour proves numbingly procedural. Moreover, that second trial — about teenage girls whose “deserves to die” list has allegedly prompted a classmate’s murder — is as creatively worn-out as the one in the premiere.
“I need ignorant juries,” Liz announces near the outset, preening in the mirror while providing insight into the defense attorney’s cobwebbed mind.
Fox will probably need an equally undemanding Nielsen panel if exposure to these opening statements is expected to induce their return to “Canterbury’s” tales.