NBC should score well with this savvy whodunit based on the best-selling crime drama from Steve Martini. This two-part mini proves that you can put the drama back in the courtroom without “Ally McBeal”-like antics. Chris Noth, also serving as producer, is an inspired choice as Martini’s signature character, Paul Madriani, a street-smart lawyer who has let success pass him by because of his pursuit of justice at the expense of the law.
Madriani is used to handling slip-and-fall cases but is given the chance of his career when his courtroom nemesis, tough-as-nails Judge Armando Acosta (Edward James Olmos) is charged with solicitation of a prostitute during a vice-squad sting. Acosta enlists ex-Assistant DA Catherine Rosetti (Lolita Davidovich) and Madriani to defend him, but the stakes are raised when the sting operation decoy, Brittany Hill (Heidi Mark), is murdered and evidence points to the judge.
Fans of the novel may balk at plot changes, although for entertainment’s sake, the alterations propel the story on the small screen without sacrificing much character development. In fact, this incarnation beefs up romantic developments with a subplot about Madriani’s on-again, off-again relationship with Catherine.
Director Mick Garris and writer Christopher Lofton also discard Martini’s first-person narrative, allowing the deft Noth to convey the essence of Madriani with a wide array of smirks and quizzical looks. Part cynic mixed with devotion and good humor, Noth’s Madriani is a nice evolution from the actor’s characters on “Law & Order” and “Sex and the City.” Pic would serve nicely as an intro to a spinoff series or, at the very least, as a reminder that Noth could easily command his own show.
As the titular judge, Olmos is given little to do in part one but sit around looking stern. It isn’t until the second night that we see his complex emotions emerge, especially in a poignant scene that illustrates the depth of his relationship with his wife, played by the wonderful Sonia Braga.
The weakest link in the chain is Davidovich, who does not give the wily Catherine any rough edges. Her good-natured demeanor tends to belittle the seriousness of all that involves her character.
Otherwise, a colorful supporting cast, including Charles Durning as curmudgeonly Judge Radovich and John Terry as opportunistic DA Coleman Kline, round out the pic nicely.
Garris juggles the numerous characters and suspects ably in and out of the courtroom, but shows a distinct propensity for the macabre elements of the story. The show is appropriately scheduled at 9 p.m. Lensing by Edward Pei is crisp and studied although tape reviewed lacked final technical credits.