Friday, March 04, 2005

A Law & Order Too Far?

Winter series - the spackle that covers the cracks in the previous Fall's schedule. Some winter shows are designed to fill the gaps and disappear at the end of May sweeps, while other series are meant to succeed, and debut in the winter to exploit the weaknesses in the schedules of other networks and establish themselves sufficiently that, come next Fall they'll have an advantage over any new program that the "other guys" air. Clearly, the latest addition to the Law & Order franchise, Law & Order: Trial by Jury is firmly rooted in the latter category.

Unlike the other entries in the franchise Law & Order: Trial by Jury is focused almost entirely on the prosecutors and the defense attorneys. In Thursday night's debut episode there are two investigators, DA's Men, whose job it is to interview witnesses and track down additional bits of evidence to solidify the case. In the first two episodes the DA's Investigators are Lenny Briscoe (Jerry Orbach) and Hector Salazar (Kirk Acevedo). Neither is an active cop - Briscoe of course had retired, while Salazar had been badly wounded and is on disability. In truth they don't have that much to do; most of the burden for carrying the show falls on Bebe Neuwirth as Assistant District Attorney Tracey Kibre and Amy Carlson as Assistant District Attorney Kelly Gaffney as well as the assorted guest stars as defense attorneys. The show follows a trial from the grand jury examination of the prosecution's evidence to determine if there is enough material to indict the suspect, through jury selection, presentation of the case and jury deliberations. Unusually for a Dick Wolf produced series at least some of the process will be seen through the eyes of various defense attorneys.

I'm not sure about this series, although of course it's hard to evaluate it from one viewing. The elements seem to be there. The cast is solid, particularly Bebe Neuwirth whose work I've always enjoyed. And yet the show doesn't feel "right" somehow. Part of the reason is Producer Dick Wolf's oft-expressed dislike and disdain for defense attorneys. In Wolf's world, the prosecutors are always the "good guys" and defense attorneys always the "bad guys" and the cops always get the right person...eventually. In the first episode the defense attorney is played by Annabella Sciorra and is depicted as someone who will defend her client, who she suspects is guilty even before he tells her how he murdered the victim, because she's getting a seven figure fee. It is clear that Wolf will be making the defense attorneys into characters who are so flawed they are impossible to like or sympathize with and, in support of his contention that the defendant is usually guilty, the defendants thoroughly bad. In Thursday's episode the defendant was not only a rich and arrogant Broadway producer, he was a former attorney who was so corrupt that he was disbarred. This might be fine in the original Law & Order where the defense councils may have been major guest stars but were seen for far less than half an episode, but in Law & Order: Trial by Jury the defenders have a much larger role and have to carry at least some of the plot. It wouldn't hurt for them to have at least some sympathetic qualities. Instead Sciorra's character "Maggie Detweiler" came across as cold and grasping bitch, while her jury consultants came across as sleazy.

Thursday's episode was full of absurdities. Kibre has the suspect arrested and put before the grand jury after a year - despite the absence of a body, and blood evidence that was sufficiently contaminated that they couldn't prove that it belonged to the victim - because the victim's mother found a business card from an obstetrician and learned that the victim was pregnant. The key argument in the case centered not around the evidence in the murder case or about the victim, but that the defendant had some healthy dogs put to sleep because they'd be an inconvenience in the city. This satisfies the requirement to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt? Apparently it does. This sort of thing occurs of course. There was a murder case in Canada where a man was convicted of murdering the child of a neighbour because he was "different" (which apparently meant he didn't go out drinking and chasing anything in a skirt, and that he kept bees). The problem is that in that case Guy Paul Morin was innocent and his innocence was proved by DNA testing. About the only thing that rang true in the events surrounding the trial itself was that the final hold-out in the case decided to change his mind because he didn't want to miss "the playoffs".

Finally a few thoughts on Jerry Orbach. He looked ill and his colour seemed terribly artificial - as if the make-up had been put on particularly heavily and was the wrong shade at that. Then there was the hair which seemed to be the product of a bad dye job, but might well have been a wig to hide chemotherapy related hair loss. He did a good job with the material that he had, but clearly Briscoe was a secondary character in the series and would continue to have been secondary had he been able to continue in the part.

I have no doubt that Law & Order: Trial by Jury will do well in the ratings, at least for a while. I just can't help but feel that the show won't measure up to the non-ratings standards that the other shows in the Law & Order stable have set. It seems flawed somehow but I don't fully understand why. I'll watch it, at least for a while, and see if I can figure it out.


Anonymous said...

My problem with all of the L&O's is there are so many of them. I can understand that if there's a good show, to come up with a great spinoff, but there should be originality to it. L&O has almost become a brand, like Coke. If you like the first one, you'll love Coke with lime. I'm staying away from that drink, and I'll be staying away from Trial By Jury because of that fact.

Brent McKee said...

Actually I like Coke with lime - add some rum and you've got a Cuba Libre without having to squeeze a fresh lime. But you are right that Law & Order has become a brand, with CSI rapidly going down the same road. L&O is a good series - or was last time I watched it - and as I said in an earlier blog entry I am a big fan of the Criminal Intent series just because I like Vincent D'Onofrio in it. However not only is Wolf showing his biases in the new show, and it just don't work for me.

Brent McKee said...

Oops, something got cut: I meant to say "not only is Wolf showing his biases, but his characters feel like retreads from other series, and ijust doesn't work for me."

Anonymous said...

We have watched all the L&O's for years, but you are right, something isn't working with "Trial By Jury". We've seen two episodes. After the first we knew something was lacking, but gave it another try. By the end of the second I was feeling irritated, frustrated or something! One thing, Bebe Neuwirth just doesn't seem to fit. She comes across flat, no personality. The other actors and their characters seem ok, not her(s). We will probably not watch L&O TBJ again.