'Canterbury's Law': Margulies Makes A Compelling Case

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 10, 2008

About midway through the first episode of "Canterbury's Law," a legal drama premiering on Fox at 8 tonight, someone says to the title character, "I don't get you, Canterbury; what are you doing here?" Frankly, a good question: There can't be many things network prime time needs less these days than another show about a lawyer -- about law and order.

But this one's different, as the producers might have said during a pitch meeting. The lawyer is a woman. And, further, the show is not stuck in courtrooms with perfunctory cases of the week; it also deals extensively with the lawyer's private life, a life that happens to be a mess getting messier.

It works, thanks largely to the hugely watchable star, former "ER" resident Julianna Margulies. Her career hasn't exactly been stratospheric lately -- she was one of the hapless non-reptilians in that fabled mess "Snakes on a Plane" -- but that may actually help her understand Elizabeth Canterbury, the top-flight defense attorney she plays almost criminally well.

Canterbury is a commanding maestro in the courtroom, albeit one who doesn't mind bending the rules to help a client. Her marriage has been in a nose dive since the still-unexplained disappearance of her young son six years earlier. An aggrieved woman whose child has died tells Canterbury she can't possibly empathize with her unless she'd lost a child herself, the woman not realizing she is talking through her hat.

Not only is Canterbury's home life almost in ruins, but more wreckage will be added in future episodes. In one, about two giddy but malicious 16-year-old schoolgirls who cause the deaths of two classmates, Canterbury is tossed into jail herself and subjected to other humiliations meted out by the vindictive egomaniac serving as attorney general of Rhode Island, where the series is set.

"Canterbury's Law" is a "House" full of lawyers instead of doctors, since it superficially resembles Fox's blistering drama about a cantankerous physician and his team of distressed underlings -- an ensemble drama that is also a showcase for a spectacular star turn. Margulies may not be the equal of Hugh Laurie, who plays Doc House, but she's certainly in there swinging, and temperatures have a tendency to shoot up dangerously when she's let loose in court.

Her team includes Ben Shenkman as Russell Krauss, a member of the firm who also serves as Canterbury's Jiminy Cricket, reminding her when her borderline unethical antics might, for instance, land her in the slammer. Shenkman's voice sounds a little like Howard Stern's, he's good-looking in a nontraditional way, and he is a major asset to the show, as Krauss is to Canterbury & Associates.

Keith Robinson as Chester Grant and Trieste Kelly Dunn as Molly McConnell, also associates, don't get seen much tonight, but in future weeks each springs forward like a clock in March. It's a good group, further enhanced by the imposingly talented Aidan Quinn as Canterbury's husband, an embattled mate who looks as though he might take a powder at any moment. Canterbury isn't easy to live with, but then those really worth living with often aren't. Ironic, huh?

Sparks fly in the courtroom with a perhaps too-predictable frequency. Interrogating a hostile witness tonight, Canterbury gets so far into his face that she could bite his nose off -- and we know enough, even at this early stage, not to rule that out.

There are a lot of close-talkers in the premiere, which was directed by Mike Figgis of the silver screen. Unfortunately, he apparently thinks that TV is so intimate a medium that it's impossible to overdo close-ups, and quickly proves himself wrong. The close quarters become suffocating; one can't always be certain there are bodies attached to the characters' heads.

The producers, who include Margulies, are going for taut and edgy and all that (maybe Figgis was thinking of cellphone screens), but they get carried away. There is also the possibility that poor Canterbury may suffer so many calamities and heartaches that the cases get lost beneath the melodrama. That would be bad.

Canterbury was actually going to be a man when the show was first conceived, but when CBS picked up "Shark," with James Woods as a dynamic neurotic lawyer, the "Canterbury" team had to rethink the show. It turns out to be a blessing; Margulies rises so grippingly to the challenge that whatever else it is, "just another" courtroom show "Canterbury's Law" most definitely is not.

Canterbury's Law airs tonight at 8 on Channel 5.

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