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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.

'Six Degrees'

Think of the new ABC drama "Six Degrees," which premieres tonight, as a kind of gift -- not a gift to the television viewers of this great nation, but a gift to J.J. Abrams, the producer-writer behind it. Because Abrams came up with ABC's big, loud walloping hit "Lost," network executives were apparently eager to reward him by buying whatever other ideas might pop out of his head.

Unfortunately, the central conceit of "Six Degrees" -- that you and I and our fates are separated by only a half-dozen people from each other (before it was theorized that we were all just six degrees away from actor Kevin Bacon) -- is strictly yesterday's blog. It's lame and it's limp, and as deployed for "Six Degrees," the conceit would seem to owe quite a bit to the movie "Crash," among such other more antique inspirations as "The Bridge of San Luis Rey."

Jay Hernandez stars as who-zee-whats, Bridget Moynahan co-stars as what's-her-name, and such actors as Erika Christensen, Dorian Missick and the king of the logy mopers, Campbell Scott, play whoever's left.

Scott's character, to pick one at random, is a photographer suffering from shooter's block, or whatever photographers call it; he'd like to take pictures, yes, but darn it, he's just not in the mood. So he sulks around for 10 or 15 minutes and then decides: "I'd like to work. I'm ready to work. I wasn't ready last week, but I am ready now."

It sounds like a variation on an old Rodney Dangerfield line. He used to come out onstage in his black suit and red tie and say, "I'm okay now, but last week I was in bad shape, you know what I mean?" At least with Rodney, it was funny on purpose.

The premiere is narrated ominously -- at least at the open and close -- by The Voice. "One island, millions of people, six strangers," The Voice intones over early shots of Manhattan. Of all those people, "Any one, at any time, could be the one that changes your life forever." Yeah, yeah, big deal. But where's the nearest Dunkin' Donuts?

Okay, we'll play along: Who's going to change somebody else's life forever? Perhaps it's the girl doing a Lady Godiva on a garbage truck. Or the man who arrives on a rooftop to find a young woman proffering a lavish dinner and a note reading, "Will you marry me?" Or maybe it's the TV critic who, having seen one too many ridiculous idiocies being passed off as new ideas, gets hold of a nuclear warhead and -- okay, no, that's not part of the show.

"Anyone on the planet can be connected to any other person through a chain of six people," says The Voice near the conclusion. "No one is a stranger for long." What a sweet thought. Just the kind of note on which to end "Six Degrees" -- and to hope you'll never set eyes on it again.

Shark (one hour) debuts tonight at 10 on Channel 9.

Six Degrees (one hour) debuts tonight at 10 on Channel 7.

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