Watching Justice, I missed The Defenders. Not that’s there’s anything wrong with Justice, as in “erroneous” or “sinful.” Like every other Jerry Bruckheimer show, it’s professional about professionals—in this case, bigfoot lawyers defending high-profile clients accused of tabloid-ready crimes. Unlike most of prime time, at least it pretends to presume some innocence. And probably it’s accurate about contemporary jurisprudence as part blood sport and part video game. Victor Garber, Rebecca Mader, Kerr Smith, Eamonn Walker, and their hot-and-cold running water boys at law firm TNT&G specialize in chiaroscuro. With their focus groups, shadow juries, witness preps, crime-scene re-creations, and cable-TV theatrics, they perform a sort of science-fiction stagecraft, a weekly prestidigitation of alternative truths in parallel worlds. And then, at the conclusion of each hour, no matter what the jury decides, we get to see what really happened, as if God had been there with a camcorder.
I miss The Defenders, which disappeared from the air 41 years ago this month, because Reginald Rose, who created the series, and E. G. Marshall, who starred, believed that justice was more than who blew the best smoke into the most mirrors. When The Defenders went to court, we contemplated moral issues rather than performance art. We thought about civil disobedience, euthanasia, blacklisting, and abortion. The law was a fulcrum, a point of rest between magnitudes that imposed balance and proportion. I take it to be ironic that, on Justice, “Fulcrum” is the last name of the host of the talk show where the contemptible Garber does most of his spinning.
Maybe Justice deserves Shark, in which a guilt-ridden James Woods abandons private practice as a defense lawyer to join the Borg hive of L.A. district attorney Jeri Ryan after one of his celebrity clients proves to be a bad person. I yield to no one in my admiration, verging on superstitious awe, for Woods’s velociraptor acting style. Whether he is cracking his sadistic whip on a mulish team of hard-bodied young law clerks or trying to remember how to be a father to a teenage girl, he never mails it in. Instead, he kamikazes.
But let’s get serious. Wouldn’t he have felt better doing some pro bono work for an unpopular cause? Did he have to turn his coat to join that mob of prosecutors already at our windows and in our drawers and computer files? What will he do for a career encore when one of his lethal injections turns out to be a frame-up or mistaken identity?
About the other obvious pairing of two new shows, 30 Rock and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, there has already been an excess of vapors. The surprise to me is how overcooked and puerile 30 Rock seems, a deep-down conventional sitcom trying too hard to be hip, as if to find its inner Larry Sanders. Alec Baldwin is a hefty bag of tricks as network vice-president of East Coast programming and microwave ovens, but otherwise there was only one good joke in the pilot (about Urkel and black nerdiness). Whereas Studio 60, also about a live comedy-sketch show and also obviously inspired by the decline of Saturday Night Live, proves that Aaron Sorkin and a stellar cast can make behind-the-scenes television enthralling again. Bradley Whitford channels Sorkin, Matthew Perry is a revelation, and Amanda Peet a sight to behold. Timothy Busfield, Nathan Corddry, D. L. Hughley, Sarah Paulson, and Steven Weber carry their spears like scepters. And imagine throwing away Judd Hirsch and Ed Asner in your first hour. Network meets Michael Frayn’s Noises Off meets Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead.