Steven Bochco has been associated with a glittering array of ensemble dramas, but the producer’s latest doesn’t so much raise the bar on courtroom series as gently limbo under it. Focusing on young criminal lawyers whose personal lives are hopelessly intertwined, “Raising the Bar” drifts into “And Justice for All” territory, with its sinister, over-the-top D.A. and hanging judge practically salivating to throw the book at sympathetic (and even innocent) defendants. The case for the show improves over subsequent episodes, but the premiere delivers a weak opening statement.
The premise of ambitious but idealistic young legal eagles battling blind and uncaring justice certainly dovetails with TNT’s preference for meat-and-potatoes dramas. It’s just that the well-trodden formula can’t help but feel a trifle musty.
Bochco has for the most part assembled a solid cast that boasts several “NYPD Blue” alums, including Mark-Paul Gosselaar as Jerry Kellerman, a principled public defender, and Currie Graham as the sneering, win-at-all-costs D.A.
Kellerman’s colleagues share info, prop each other up emotionally and blow off steam drinking together. Among them are prosecutors Michelle (Melissa Sagemiller) and Marcus (J. August Richards), judicial clerk Charlie (played by Jonathan Scarfe, whose extracurricular life begins to get complicated in episode two) and defense attorney Richard (Teddy Sears). They’re a uniformly decent bunch, even in the face of a system that generally isn’t.
It’s with the grownups, as it were, that the show bogs down. Gloria Reuben has little to do initially as the chief public defender, but Graham’s D.A. and shoot-first judge Trudy Kessler (Jane Kaczmarek) come off as such irredeemable hard-liners as to border on caricature. Utterly unconcerned about ruining lives, as one of the attorneys states, they care only about two things: bad press and having decisions reversed on appeal.
Series co-creator David Feige spent a dozen years as a public defender, and we’ll take him at his word that such behavior and personalities are more common than the average person might expect. The problem is that even accepting that reality doesn’t make the characters’ antics in the pilot (directed by Jesse Bochco, the showrunner’s son) more convincing or their lack of nuance less conspicuous.
Mercifully, the excesses are toned down in subsequent hours, and the lawyers’ profiles gradually grow richer and more interesting, aided by the arrival of a married colleague (Natalia Cigliuti) who catches Kellerman’s eye.
But there’s no escaping a nagging sense that the series springs from a well-worn playbook — in keeping with TNT’s reasonably successful strategy to deliver retro dramas (“Saving Grace” is a notable exception) that wouldn’t have looked out of place in 1985.
Not incidentally, that was the year before the premiere of “L.A. Law,” a Bochco classic that set the bar for all future courtroom dramas. And if “Raising the Bar” can’t meet those lofty expectations, well, as the show’s lawyers might testify, nobody said life’s fair.