Friday, September 22, 2006

Oh This Shark Has Such Nice Teeth Babe

There are times when an actor is so dominant that just the mention of his name in association with a project is sufficient to to let you know that he (or far less often she) will dominate that project for good or ill. I mean let's face it, when Jack Nicholson is in a picture who is going to watch anyone else. Well maybe if DeNiro is there too. And then there's James Woods. When James Woods is on screen - in a movie, a TV show or even a poker tournament - he's the guy you're going to be watching. Not always because he's good because that's not always the case but because he seems to have this hyperactive need to be the centre of attention and whether it's showing up at a heads up poker game against Johnny Chan carrying a grapefruit (Chan is famous for sniffing an orange during a tournament, defense against the days when most poker rooms were also filled with smoke) or devouring the scenery in just about any movie he's in, he wants people watching him. And now he's come to television in the new CBS show Shark.

Woods plays Sebastian Stark, a high priced defence attorney to the stars. When we first see Stark he's addressing the jury at a high profile trial of a man accused of the attempted murder of his wife. His argument wasn't that the man didn't beat the crap out of his wife but that the charge of attempted murder was the wrong one since he had called 911 after he beat her and had kept her alive until the emergency services arrived. The wife beater, Gordie Brock, was found not guilty in about three hours. Six days later Brock beat his wife to death and had the arrogance to tell the cops "It’s my lawyer, boys. So why not save everybody some time and money and let me go right now." Stark went into what amounted to a state of depression for about a month before an offer came from the office of the Mayor of Los Angeles, an old friend of Stark's. He was setting up a "high profile crimes" unit within the Los Angeles District Attorney's office and he wanted to bring someone in from outside to head up the operation because he wasn't impressed with the quality of the people in the DA's office. The man he had in mind was Sebastian Stark.

In short order Stark becomes the newest Assistant District Attorney in the office of DA Jessica Devlin (Jeri Ryan, a much better actress than we gave her credit for when she was labouring away as 7 of 9 in Star Trek: Voyager) and is given the traditional new guy "hated by the boss" gifts - an office in the bowels of the building that is ever so slightly better than Ainsley Hayes's office in The West Wing and a team of the biggest screw-ups that the DAs office can find. And Stark knows it. There's a very impressive little scene where he goes through the resumes of each of his staff members from memory, including a young woman who "isn't on the list" but has volunteered to join the team because she wants to be a defense attorney and wants to learn from the best. "Know thy enemy" is part of his philosophy of trying cases in court which is summed up in his three rules of court: (1) Trial is war and second place is death, (2) Truth is relative - pick one, (3) in a jury trial only twelve opinions matter. In his first case Stark has to deal with an up and coming young singer who stabbed a cameraman working on her video shoot, supposedly because he attempted to rape her. In his first assignments for him, Stark's team lives down to his - and presumably the DA's - expectations of them. Not only can't they follow his instructions but they bring him a piece of evidence that apparently blasts his case apart. It's a video on the Internet showing the defendant and the victim having very consensual sex. Great thinks the team, it's not rape so the defendant can't claim self-defense - terrible says Stark because it makes the defendant look like a sleaze who tapes his sexual conquests and she acted when he tried to stop her from protecting her reputation by destroying the video. Things get worse when the defense is able to show that the victim, a young man portrayed by his mother (Melissa Leo - virtually unrecognisable to anyone who remembers her from Homicide: Life On The Streets and looking far older than her 46 years) as non-violent, had attacked a female nurse while he was under psychiatric care. That night, at his palatial home Stark shows his team his full-sized court - literally a courtroom in the basement complete with artifacts from various famous trials, like the Clarence Darrow's chair from the Scopes Monkey Trial - and how to attack a witness on the stand. This is a great motivational tactic and inspires his team members to work harder. But it is Stark himself who is able to figure out the final piece of evidence that induces a tearful confession on the stand from the defendant.

There's a "B" plot involving custody of Stark's daughter. Stark's divorce from his ex-wife (played by Lindsay Frost - again unrecognisable but this time because she's a brunette rather than a blonde) has been amicable and they've shared custody of their daughter until she makes a final decision who she wants to live with at age 16. However Stark's ex is getting remarried and moving to New York. As a result he expects his daughter to go with his wife and wants to spend time with her before she leaves. Their schedules don't exactly mesh and what he thinks is a final dinner with his daughter, he is so distracted by the court case that it turns into a disaster. All of which makes her final decision about custody a surprise, albeit a rather predictable surprise if you don't happen to be either of the girl's parents.

Shark is all about James Woods. You can count on the fingers of one hand the number of scenes he's not in, and you'd probably only have to take of one sock to count the number of shots he's not in. And he so dominates the proceedings that the four young actors who he spends the most time with on screen - Sam Page, Sophina Brown, Alexis Cruz, and Sarah Carter - get about as much chance to develop their characters as one of those little dolls that come with Fisher-Price toys. Hopefully this changes in subsequent episodes. Danielle Panabaker,who plays Stark's daughter Julie, fares better. She brings a warmth to her character and is seemingly the only person who can penetrate Sebastian Stark's armour not to mention his overpowering ego. As I mentioned earlier, Jeri Ryan turns in her usual good performance and manages not to be totally overwhelmed by Woods' personality. What they do with the character could be interesting, but I suspect they're going to go with the tried and true "unresolved sexual tension" gambit - they can't stand each other but are still yearning to get into each other's pants. I hate "unresolved sexual tension" as a plot device.

The writing on this show is adequate. Certainly there's more than a few "bon mots" mostly for James Woods - "What can I say. There's no 'team' in 'I'." - but occasionally for other characters as well. A defense lawyer (with whom Stark had sex a couple of times) calls him "Shark" and he says "don't call me that" at which point she reminds him that she's seen his 'fin'. For all that the script isn't that bad. There are a couple of chances for Woods to have quiet moments, as when he's having a private meeting with Melissa Leo's character, and several with Panabaker where he comes across as a man who is a doting parent even if he can't remember the details of his daughter's life. And yet the whole thing comes across as being strained and forced to fit James Woods and his personality. I'm hard pressed to think of another actor for whom this script would have worked. As for the direction, the pilot was supposed to have been a "Spike Lee joint" but I really can't see anything about the way he did this episode that would set it - or him - apart from the average TV director. Not that I'm knocking TV directors of course, but I was expecting a whole lot more from a guy whose been nominated for a couple of Oscars. It's certainly not as distinctive as Tarentino's turns on either ER or CSI.

How to assess this show? This show wouldn't be on the air without James Woods - literally, since CBS apparently cancelled the purchase order for the pilot until Woods was cast as Sebastian Stark. In the show Stark tells the mayor of Los Angeles that "I eat prosecutors for breakfast. They’re my main source of fiber." I've always thought that James Woods' principal source of fiber is the scenery he chews and this series is no different. There have been inevitable comparisons between Shark and House but I think such comparisons ignore an essential fact. In House I never lose the feeling that Hugh Laurie is playing a character as he is written. Gregory House's ego, sarcasm, and personality have nothing to do with Hugh Laurie, and if another actor had been cast it wouldn't have made a bit of differences. With Shark I have the overwhelming sense that the character has been changed by the fact that James Woods is playing him and that if a different actor were playing Sebastian Stark a lot of his personal traits would have been different. Heaven knows I don't find the series "realistic" but if I want realism I can (and do) watch Justice. Certainly I don't think that Shark is as good a show as the one it replaces in this time slot, Without A Trace. Shark has nothing of the depth of character that the show about missing persons generated in its first episode. And yet there is something incredibly entertaining about watching James Woods do what he does. Is it a great show? Hardly, but it is watchable and since I grew away from ER years ago this may well be a show I'll stick with for a while.

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