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TV PREVIEW: THE NEW SEASON

Jimmy Smits's new NBC courtroom drama, 'Outlaw,' should be dismissed

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Emmy Award-winner Jimmy Smits ("NYPD Blue," "The West Wing") stars as Cyrus Garza, a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, who decides to quit the bench when he realizes the system he believed in is flawed. Garza returns to private practice and travels the country with his legal team taking on controversial cases. "Outlaw" airs Fridays at 10 p.m. ET.

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By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 15, 2010

As long as there have been TV courtroom dramas, viewers have been asked to suspend their disbelief in increasingly greater portions -- especially those "Law & Order" addicts who actually went to law school. Owing to our love of the genre, we allow so much inadmissible evidence, beginning with the very hastening of the legal process. In a way, it seems that much of what transpires in a TV courtroom (or a TV police station) makes up for our real-life frustrations with the pace and often ambiguous outcomes of our justice system.

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But "Outlaw," NBC's new legal drama in which Jimmy Smits plays a neocon Supreme Court justice who resigns in order to return to private practice, blows away a viewer's patience with make-believe. The show is so ludicrously dumb that your eyeballs will hurt from rolling so much.

Smits plays Cyrus Garza, regarded as the most conservative justice on the bench -- much to the chagrin of his father, Francisco, a die-hard liberal and revered civil rights activist of the Cesar Chavez type. Father and son agree to disagree. "[Cyrus] is wrong," Francisco tells a television news show. "And deep inside of him, he knows it." The two men are in a car crash. Francisco is killed; Cyrus survives.

In summation, that actually sounds like an interesting TV show, even more so when we see that Justice Garza is a committed hedonist, jetting out to Las Vegas whenever SCOTUS recesses so he can bed women and run up gambling debts.

Despite that premise, "Outlaw" goes horribly wrong almost as soon as it gets started. After reversing his position on a death-penalty appeal (and thus angering his GOP fan base), Cyrus uses the opportunity to dramatically announce his resignation from the bench. And I mean dramatically: He gives a nonsensical speech about wanting to pursue true justice, not from behind the bench but by arguing in front of it.

So he departs, with his bewildered clerks, who now find themselves working for Garza the pro-bono defense lawyer, who has offices in his Washington townhouse. Their first big case -- this is where my eyes rolled so hard that my contact lenses popped out -- is to represent the same defendant Cyrus sided with in the Supreme Court appeal. On some level, "Outlaw" is a change of heart story; the long story arc intends to explore Garza's ideologies as a moving target, partly brought on by his grief at his father's death.

Smits is a fully glazed, overcooked ham in "Outlaw," darting to and fro, spouting idealistic mumbo jumbo as he goes: "Sometimes I was sitting there, right there where you are, Your Honor, feeling like my hands were tied," Garza tells a judge when arguing his case, using his own majority opinion as precedent.

In the first and second episodes, you get the sneaking suspicion that Smits doesn't like the character he's agreed to portray and that he has decided to play Garza as a mash-up of his previous roles. Worse still are Smits's co-stars, including Ellen Woglom and Jesse Bradford as lawyers and Carly Pope as a sexy-sassy private investigator.

My main criterion, when judging legal shows, is whether or not the actors can convince me that they remotely understand the content of the lines they're saying. Sitting at Garza's dining room table -- now their conference room -- it's all these people can do to convince us that they know how to read, much less argue one of these convoluted cases that the writers have dreamed up.

I hope, somewhere out there, that fictional attorney Victor Sifuentes (Smits's role on "L.A. Law") is drafting a cease-and-desist letter.

Outlaw

(one hour) premieres Wednesday at 10 p.m. on NBC. (Pilot episode will repeat Friday at 10 p.m. in the series's regular time slot.)


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