Complete First Season
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All photos © TNT
Reviewed by Will Harris
ust as TNT had managed to convince the critics that every original series on their network was golden, they made an error in programming – and, even more surprisingly, it was with a series that, given its creator, seemed certain to keep the ball rolling. Nonetheless, the amount of ire brought upon “Raising the Bar,” a courtroom drama which sprang forth from producer Steven Bochco (“Hill Street Blues,” “L.A. Law,” “NYPD Blue”), was considerable. After screening the first season of the series in its entirety, however, it’s hard to see why everyone was getting so upset. It might not be groundbreaking in its execution, but it’s certainly not awful.
The life of a public defender is less than glamorous, and it takes a certain kind of personality to be able to step into a courtroom and defend someone whose crimes may well be viewed by the average person as indefensible. Jerry Kellerman (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) has that personality, and although it’s unconfirmed as to whether or not his hairdo has any effect on his legal prowess, he certainly seems to know what he’s doing in a courtroom. His biggest problem is his brash attitude, which regularly causes him to come into combat with Judge Trudy Kessler (Jane Kaczmarek). Also in the public defender’s office is Richard Woolsey (Teddy Sears), whose naïveté often finds him in situations which leave him slightly befuddled. Fortunately, the office has a strong leader in Rosalind Whitman (Gloria Reuben), who helps protect her flock from the devious Nick Balco (Currie Graham) over in the D.A.’s office. This is a good thing, since Nick’s always ready to tell his crew – which includes Michelle Ernhardt (Melissa Sagemiller) and Marcus McGrath (J. August Richards) – to do something slightly slimy to win a case.
You can probably see the basic premise of the show: it’s the good guys versus the bad guys. And not unlike Dick Wolf’s short-lived “Conviction,” both sides end up drinking together in the local tavern after a hard day’s battles in the courtroom, with conversations getting progressively tenser as the alcohol begins to flow. Where the show begins to get a bit groan-worthy is in its explorations of the attorneys’ private lives. Jerry’s sleeping with Michelle; Richard has a crush on Rosalind. Bobbi (Natalie Cigliuti), the new kid on the block in the public defender’s office, is having troubles in her marriage, but since the sexual tension between her and Jerry is palpable, you know from the get-go that they’ll end up together, just as you know that the relationship between Jerry and Michelle never would’ve worked out, anyway. (They’re on different sides, you know, and never the twain shall meet.) There’s also a subplot which reveals that A) Judge Kessler is sleeping with her assistant, Charlie (Jonathan Scarfe), and B) Charlie’s actually gay. Hey, what do you want to bet that, by season’s end, he hooks up with a gentleman and finds his closeted lifestyle on the verge of coming to an abrupt conclusion?
You can’t blame the producers for throwing in the soap opera aspects to keep viewers interested, but the courtroom cases are the far more interesting portions of “Raising the Bar.” Granted, even most of the legal drama isn’t anything we haven’t seen before, but it’s a strong cast. The only real misstep comes from Kaczmarek, whose highly animated facial expressions combine with her character’s often ridiculous declarations of jurisprudence to make her seem more comedic than dramatic. (It also doesn’t help that “Simpsons” fans will immediately think of her character on that series, Judge Harm.)
What timing: Season One is hitting stores just before Season Two of “Raising the Bar” premieres. Let’s hope there’s less emphasis on the personal and more on the courtroom drama this time around. Oh yeah, and let’s also hope that Jerry gets himself a haircut. Seriously, would you want a man who looked like that to be in charge of keeping you out of jail?
Special Features: There’s a pretty decent haul of bonus material for a first season set. In addition to a handful of audio commentaries from various members of the cast and crew, there’s also a featurette focusing on producer David Feige (the public defender whose book inspired Bochco to create the series), a casual “after hours roundtable” where the cast get the opportunity to discuss their experiences on the show, and “Mistrials: Bloopers from Season One.”