Tom Shales, Style Columnist

James Woods's Formidable Chops in 'Shark'

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 21, 2006

On TV, where antiheroes are roughly as plentiful as heroes, the population of good bad guys, or bad good guys, increases by one tonight. It's hard to imagine anyone objecting, though, because as brilliantly played by James Woods, the character is one fabulous rat.

Woods stars as Sebastian Stark, a superstar lawyer who's so rich he's had a courtroom built inside his ravishingly lavish house -- and its jury box is a souvenir from the set of "To Kill a Mockingbird." Stark leads a darkly remarkable life, but that's all about to change.

"Shark" is one of the season's best and fastest-moving new dramas -- a sort of fish-out-of-water story. Stark is persuaded to abandon his lucrative practice of defending celebrity murder suspects and join the office of the district attorney, which is something like Kathie Lee Gifford becoming a music critic.

"I eat prosecutors for breakfast," Stark says when first entreated to cross over. "They're my only source of fiber." He's talked into making the change anyway, of course, and thanks mainly to Woods -- one of the most watchable and dynamic actors in the business -- the result promises to be at the very least engrossing, and more often electrifying.

James Woods isn't just a big star; he is a great actor.

"Shark" would seem an inevitable nickname for the courthouse legend he plays, although at one point in the premiere, Stark snaps: "Don't call me that -- I hate that." He's certainly more shark than jellyfish, however.

"I am great and yet, I am humble," he declares upon winning a case. And in his ruthless mode -- the one he favors -- he tells a young lawyer whom he has just abruptly fired, "Good luck with the rest of your career."

Woods doesn't make Stark lovable, exactly, but he certainly makes him command respect, the way Hugh Laurie does in his wondrous weekly work as the world's crankiest doctor on Fox's "House." Stark is a similarly intimidating rogue male, but no rip-off, and Woods plays the part as no other actor could -- sharp edges gleaming, cutting and slicing, but his abrasiveness mitigated by subtle vulnerabilities that keep Stark from becoming a caricature.

Most of the vulnerability involves Stark's home life. Divorced -- as one would certainly expect -- Stark is preparing, in the pilot, to say goodbye to his Manhattan-bound daughter, Julie, 16, played knowingly by Danielle Panabaker. Among the things Julie knows is that no matter how ferocious Stark is at his job, as a father he's no scarier than a pillow fight at a pajama party. Their relationship provides welcome respite from the courtroom stuff because, let's face it, TV is up to its rabbit ears in courtroom stuff.

The first case that Stark tries as a prosecutor is not exactly a legal labyrinth (much less a riddle wrapped in an enigma), and it's probably not going too far to say that were Woods not playing the title role, "Shark" might be tolerable but hardly the rocket-ship ride that it is.

Delivering what he considers the "cutthroat manifesto" to the inexperienced young pups in the D.A.'s office, Stark issues such pronouncements as, "A trial is war; second place is death" and, to a neophyte worried about justice being served: "Your job is to win. Justice is God's problem."

Stark also says, "There is no defense for mediocrity," which might be true, but it's something the producers of "Shark" don't have to worry about -- not as long they've got James Woods barking and biting at his best.

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