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September 1, 2008
Television Review

The Crux of the Matter Is Lawyers, Not the Law

The New York Times

From the opening credits of “Raising the Bar,” Steven Bochco’s new drama of judicial tantrum throwing and tousled hair, we know we are many subway stops away from the dinge, Greek coffee cups, billowing waistlines and other resplendently moody glories he and David Milch offered in “NYPD Blue.”

Here now is a New York that glows and gleams in saturated color: every day looks like Christmas at Rockefeller Center. Even the public defender’s office has good leather swivel chairs and tall plants in stylish pots. If the assistant district attorneys aren’t wearing Prada, they’re finding very good facsimiles at H&M. The heels are high, the deltoids defined. The series’s co-creator, David Feige, is a former Bronx public defender, but it seems as though his field notes on the aesthetics of municipal government were quickly tucked away in a folder marked, “Completely Ignore.”

“Raising the Bar,” which begins Monday on TNT, revolves around a group of young public defenders and the junior prosecutors whom they battle in courtrooms during working hours and drink beers with later. Some of these beers are consumed in a bar. But some are consumed in the shower, because this is the kind of show in which three words generally relevant to any treatment of the legal profession — “conflict of interest” — appear to have been censured.

A morning in the district attorney’s office might begin with a senior lawyer comparing the anatomy of a pretty young deputy to two bowls of yogurt. Young deputy: “Have you even heard of a hostile work environment?” Lascivious boss: “Santucci v. Sussman, Eighth Circuit, 1997: Even unusually vivid descriptions of foodstuffs do not, as a matter of law, constitute harassment for purposes of a Title VII claim.”

Were “Raising the Bar” anything like “Ally McBeal,” that attractive deputy would be filing complaints and raising hell. “Ally McBeal” began in 1997 with its heroine landing a position at a law firm in Boston after having filed a sexual-harassment suit in her previous job. During its five-year run the show spent a lot of time mucking in the waters of male evildoing. But the late 1990s are long over, the gender politics of the Monica Lewinsky years behind us, and “Raising the Bar” shows us how far we’ve come — or how far we’ve receded — since.

Her body compared to a dairy product, Michelle (Melissa Sagemiller), the blonde with great cleavage, doesn’t rely on any statute to take care of business. She climbs on her boss in his desk chair in an emasculative lesson to show him that he shouldn’t promise what she knows he won’t deliver. Perhaps Catherine MacKinnon will consider expanding her definition of sexual harassment to include false intent.

Part of what makes “Raising the Bar” so loopy is its commitment to this peculiar politics of personal responsibility and to a sappy liberalism that means none of the accused represented by Jerry Kellerman (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) and his compatriots in the public defender’s office are ever all that bad. They are just mentally ill, or poor and struggling, or innocent.

Mr. Feige has written eloquently about loving his work as a public defender, not out of some abstract devotion to the judicial process but out of the genuine feeling he developed for the addicts and crooks he spent time with. But liking your job doesn’t necessarily mean you will be good at dramatizing it. If the first three episodes foretell the rest, “Raising the Bar” will continue to give us criminals who are generally decent; defenders who are passionate, right and uncompromised; and prosecutors who stretch ethics to try to defeat them.

“Raising the Bar” gives us none of the formal comforts of “Law & Order,” television’s longest-running crime series, none of its rejection of the cult of character. And the crimes aren’t ripped from the headlines: without any social resonance they’re pulled from a police blotter. “Raising the Bar” has far less interest in the law institutionally than it does in the extreme personalities that it imagines ravage and sustain it. It refuses to delve into broken systems — only into nutty jurists, opportunistic clerks, manipulative district attorneys.

Every case is argued before the same judge, Trudy Kessler (Jane Kaczmarek), who doesn’t get things started before she waters the zinnias on her bench first. Jerry calls her “a petty, spiteful tyrant,” and surely he’s right. But Jerry himself, with his untucked shirts and ties knotted at his rib cage, is such a drag, such a dopey vessel for the show’s naïve rants about the primacy of truth, that I was begging for someone to send him away and submit him to the torture of taking the bar exam in the 49 remaining states. Trudy locks him up for contempt of court. Let her also lock him up for failing to find a good barber.