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'Raising the Bar': Bochco's New Case Has Limited Merit

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By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 1, 2008

Steven Bochco has been playing cops-and-lawyers on television for longer than many current viewers have been alive. His latest series, "Raising the Bar," isn't just another Bochco effort but a veritable gathering of the clan, with son Jesse Bochco one of its directors and wife (since 2000) Dayna Bochco one of the executive producers.

Perhaps to stay well within his comfort zone, Bochco avoids uncharted waters this time out and sticks to the genre of which his "L.A. Law" and "NYPD Blue" were such premium examples. There is one departure, however; the drama series, premiering tonight, marks his entry into basic cable, airing on the increasingly competitive TNT network. That's the outfit whose ads say "We know drama" and "We know comedy"; apparently, it's also learned money. The show does not have the cut-rate look once common in ad-supported cable, and it's doubtful Bochco has radically lowered his fee. As it happens, TNT knows reruns, too, filling uncountable hours each week with reruns from NBC's "Law & Order" (unimaginably enriching another outstanding producer, Dick Wolf). "Raising the Bar" does not exhibit the quality or sophistication of Wolf's show, but it is entertaining in a facile way and populated with characters who quickly establish moderately engaging identities. Dull, it's not.

Unfortunately, the cast seems to have been hit hard not only by the overacting bug but by the bad-hair virus as well. Mark-Paul Gosselaar overplays hero Jerry Kellerman of the New York public defender's office with ridiculous hippie-length hair that looks like it fell on him from out of a tree. Jane Kaczmarek, as Judge Trudy Kessler -- Kellerman's nasty nemesis -- also looks uncomfortable from the neck up. Hairstyles are, of course, not significant production details -- unless they call attention to themselves.

More seriously problematic are the simplistic stories that get wrapped up tidily in less than 44 minutes of actual program time, necessitating expository shorthand that can cripple credibility. To their credit, the producers do spring a nifty surprise or two, especially as regards the arrogant, egotistical and vindictive judge Kaczmarek plays, someone with all the winsome, mercurial charm of, say, Ann Coulter. Appropriately, Judgie harbors political ambitions of her own.

It will depend on the amount of latitude viewers feel like giving Bochco, whether they greet the pop-up plot twists with wide-eyed delight or a groaned "Oh, brother."

In the premiere, Kellerman, known for his idealistic naivete and hot temper, defends a young man wrongly accused of rape. Judge Kessler is so capriciously mean that she wants to sentence the guy to seven years merely for carrying what looks like a Swiss Army knife. Kellerman, impetuous enemy of injustice that he is, tells the judge just what he thinks of her in court -- and is promptly slapped with a contempt citation and tossed into the slammer with his unlucky client.

The case has a racial angle and thus social significance, always a Bochco trademark. So is the occasional lurid detail; we learn that another case involves a jealous man who stabbed his wife's apparent lover 36 times and then, to phrase it delicately, Bobbittized him. True also to Bochco style, the show has a slick, deluxe look, with quick cuts of city sights establishing the setting and a unique, if arguably distracting, transition device by which one scene blurs into the next. Sequences often begin with a shot of an empty room in which the characters then materialize. A similar technique was used by director Jean Yarbrough in the Abbott and Costello version of "Jack and the Beanstalk," you may recall. (What? You mayn't?)

Seriously, it is hard to take the show very seriously. It does traffic in issues and hot topics -- and protests, in its way, the general corruption of the legal system -- but not in particularly fresh or original terms. Maybe someone will find the series sufficiently relevant and tough enough to say " 'Raising the Bar' Lowers the Boom" -- but it won't be me.

Raising the Bar (60 minutes) premiers tonight at 10 on TNT.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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