Those of us of a certain age will never forget Veronica Hamel as Joyce Davenport, the public defender on Hill Street Blues in secret love with a precinct cop, Daniel J. Travanti’s Frank Furillo. Hamel’s Davenport was the quintessential Uptown Girl—high heels, dangerous curves, naughty thoughts. In the iconography of eighties television, she was a black orchid, just as the thin, shady Edward James Olmos on Miami Vice was a sinister umbrella. In bed at night with her “Pizza Man,” she could be counted on to read, if not a legal brief, then almost as often an actual book.
Lawyers on television have come a long way since Davenport, and so has Hill Street Blues executive producer Steven Bochco, and so has serial television, and I wish I could say that the distance covered got us to a better place. But Bochco’s next big hit, L.A. Law, after a long and lurid run of big money and soap shenanigans, inspired so much contempt in the popular culture for private-practice law that subsequent noble-noodle shows like Shannon’s Deal, Eddie Dodd, The Wright Verdicts, The Trials of Rosie O’Neill, and Sweet Justice never stood a ratings chance. Those of us who loved Ally McBeal did so for extrajudicial reasons. The hydra-headed Law & Order franchise encourages an impatience with those very scruples that distinguish our legal system from, say, Zimbabwe’s, as if pettifogging barristers, hair-splitting judges, bleeding-heart social workers, do-gooder civil libertarians and other professional tear ducts sought deliberately to thwart rude justice. Bring on the secret tribunals and the lynch mobs!
Bochco’s latest, Raising the Bar, tries to have it both ways. The hard young bodies in his New York City public defender’s office spend approximately the same amount of time thinking about their clients as they do fantasizing about the equally hard young bodies in the district attorney’s office. Several actually seem more committed to their principles than to their careers. And our long-haired hero, the perpetually disheveled Jerry Kellerman (Mark-Paul Gosselaar), is so insufferably self-righteous, so forever an avenging angel with “a Don Quixote complex,” that you want to cork his mouth and tar his feathers. But is “Bobbi from Brooklyn” (Natalia Cigliuti) really married, and if so, how much? What dark secret lurks in the heart of the choirboy court clerk Charlie Sagansky (Jonathan Scarfe)?
From Bochco, we expect shrewd casting, and we get it. Heading the public-defender team is Gloria Reuben as Roz Whitman, without enough to do in the first three episodes. On the bench for every one of Kellerman’s cases is Jane Kaczmarek as Judge Trudy Kessler, an autocrat, an erotomaniac, and a nutcase who wants to be the next D.A. and who insists, like a character in Alice in Wonderland, that “process creates truth.” Vamping for the prosecution is an exceedingly blonde Melissa Sagemiller as Michelle Ernhardt, the second coming of L.A. Law’s Susan Dey. When all the hard young bodies flock to a bar after a long day of briefs, you will be asked to care that Don Quixote stops speaking to this Sandra Dee.
Raising the Bar is professional television, but no more than that. Passion and purpose are among the missing. Nothing here suggests that the law is a fulcrum, a point of rest between magnitudes; that on these magnitudes the fulcrum imposes a necessary relationship, a governing principle; that the law is balance and proportion. One of Kellerman’s clients, a bipolar basket case when he isn’t taking his meds, is told, “Just be yourself.” “Who’s that?” he wants to know. Later, someone else says to him, “You’re free to go.” And he replies, “Where would that be?” These are questions we ought to put to any ambitious television program, questions that M*A*S*H and Hill Street Blues and Northern Exposure would have had no trouble answering. Professional television aspires merely to be whatever we want.