By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 31, 2005
Executives at ABC ought to remember that they didn't bring their network out of a long ratings coma by programming halfhearted imitations of other networks' hits. ABC's pivotal blockbusters "Desperate Housewives" and "Lost" may have had derivative elements, but for the most part these were enticingly fresh concepts that benefited from stylish and savvy execution.
Every show can't be revolutionary, but it's still dismaying to find ABC introducing a series that very obviously combines elements of such CBS crime dramas as "Cold Case" and the same network's "CSI" clones. ABC's show is called "In Justice"; it's about already adjudicated crimes that are reopened by cutesy do-gooders at the National Justice Project when it appears that an injustice has been done. Get it?
The series will air Friday nights at 9 (on Channel 7) as of Jan. 6 but will get some pretrial publicity tomorrow night at 10 in the catbird's seat following "Desperate Housewives." One could argue that reruns of, say, the ancient children's program "Rootie Kazootie" could get a halfway decent rating in a time slot like that, but ABC will be watching the ratings closely to see how deep they plummet once the housewives go away.
("Housewives" won't be new, but ABC doesn't want to call it a rerun, so it's promising "an all-new 'Desperate Housewives' recap special entitled 'All the Juicy Details' " -- in other words, a clip job.)
"In Justice," to judge from the premiere, doesn't deserve to draw much of a crowd. The opening story, about a woman in Berkeley, Calif., who was convicted of murdering her father for drug money in 1995, isn't particularly compelling, and our first encounter with the women and men of the Justice Project finds them critically lacking in oomph and pizazz. They haven't jelled as a group, and individually they're on the drab side.
Naturally there has to be a curmudgeonly yet venerable boss at the helm of the elite crime-fighting unit, and for this show Kyle MacLachlan attempts to fill that bill as David Swain, described by network publicity as "a blustery but charismatic attorney of questionable ethics but undeniable talent." It's Swain who makes the big breakthrough in the first case by identifying the sound made when an asthmatic breathes through an inhaler.
It's hardly the kind of epiphany that would make Perry Mason jealous, much less impress any of the high-tech forensic experts who run rampant on most of the new breed of TV crime shows. MacLachlan gets to be kind of rough and raggedy in the part, as opposed to the spiffy slicksters he's usually played since his memorable "Twin Peaks" turn, but he doesn't appear to be having the kind of fun in the role that, say, William Shatner does on "Boston Legal."
More visually and dramatically impressive than MacLachlan is Marisol Nichols as Sonya Quintano, a dark-eyed super-sleuth whose instinct tells her that poor Jane MacDermott, serving 20 years to life for her father's murder, didn't really commit the crime. MacDermott was a drug addict in need of cash when the murder occurred, but in flashback scenes Marin Hinkle, who plays the part, hardly suggests the grubby misery of Charlize Theron in "Monster," the standard by which all human train wrecks must now be judged.
Nichols at least brings spirit and even a soupcon of sizzle to the proceedings, and easily manages to be the most magnetic presence around. The noisiest performer, meanwhile, is Harry Johnson as Henry, the junkie's brother, who has always assumed that sis shot daddy in the throat and throws a king-size screaming fit any time representatives of the Justice Project show up to rehash the case.
Since too much of the script is given over to interviews with suspects, witnesses and others connected to the case, director Paul Holahan and writer Tom Szentgyorgyi (pronounced "Smith" -- ha ha ha ha ha) invent little bits of business designed to enliven the scenes. One woman is questioned amid the racket of a dry-cleaning establishment, for instance, interrupted when the clothes in their plastic wrappers zoom by on a motorized rack making a dreadful din.
During one of the boring meetings at the office, MacLachlan suddenly shouts out what he claims to be Kurt Vonnegut's definition of an asterisk -- a bit of ribaldry not fit for a family newspaper, and not really fit for a network TV show, either, though the standards in that area have collapsed into anarchy since the century's turn.
Similarly, we see the shooting of MacDermott's father in gratuitously gory detail, blood gushing from his neck before he falls to the floor and is shot again. Fans of this kind of thing will be tickled pink to learn that the sequence is repeated in all its ugliness near the end of the hour.
Although the show has a docudramatic aura a la Dick Wolf's great "Law & Order" projects on NBC, a prologue states flatly that "the following program is not intended to reflect any actual event or person." What the program does reflect is an actual TV crime show -- but that's all it seems to be: a reflection, a replica, a not-so-amazing simulation. It's an imitation of something already being imitated here, there and everywhere.
In Justice (one hour) airs tomorrow night at 10 on Channel 7; it moves to its regular 9 p.m. Friday time slot starting Jan. 6.