Legal procedural dramas are not exactly a new species of television show. Law & Order guru Dick Wolf himself tried to get two series about the NY district attorney's office off the ground in the L&O universe (or at least next to that universe), neither of which lasted more than a few episodes. Another super-producer, Steven Bochco, who is also not entirely unfamiliar with the terrain having produced L.A. Law and Murder One (and NYPD Blue too) is about to premiere his new, NY-based, legal drama on TNT.
Entitled Raising the Bar, the series stars Bochco vet Mark-Paul Gosselaar as well as Gloria Reuben, and Jane Kaczmarek. It's an ensemble drama which also features Teddy Sears, Natalia Cigliuti, Melissa Sagemiller, Currie Graham, Jonathan Scarfe, and J. August Richards. Half of the group works for the public defender's office, and the other half for the district attorney. Save Kaczmarek, Reuben, and Graham, they're all young and almost all are friends outside of the office too.
Gosselaar is at the center of everything as the tried-and-true public defender Jerry Kellerman who puts all of himself into each and every one of his cases. The premiere episode features him getting misty-eyed and being on the verge of tears more than once and less than believably. He's young, brash, will fight tooth and nail for his clients, and is completely uninterested in politeness and tact.
Kellerman alternatingly does battle and drinks with the folks from the district attorney's office. While his compatriots do their best to leave work at the office and in the courtroom, Kellerman is unable to, which routinely gets him into fights with his friends. In short, he's a character we've all seen over and over again.
In fact, through the first three episodes there is little in any of the characters that the audience won't instantly sense as already being very familiar. This is perhaps most true for J. August Richards' Marcus McGrath, who works for the district attorney. While some will recognize Richards from his starring role on the Joss Whedon series Angel, others might remember that he's played a prosecutor in the NY district attorney's office before… on Dick Wolf's Conviction. Richards plays his part well, he's also very charismatic and compelling on screen, but there certainly is a sense of déjà vu that accompanies his role here.
Through the first three episodes of the series, the most interesting of the characters is Kaczmarek's Judge Kessler. She's the sort of hard-nosed stickler that the audience will be familiar with from any number of David E. Kelley legal dramas. What makes her interesting is that unlike most court shows, we actually get to see behind the scenes on who she is and what makes her tick. At this point, there doesn't seem anything unusual behind her motives, but it is still a slightly different viewpoint, and Kaczmarek seems to relish the role.
What then to make of this series? It's a legal drama in the vein of so many other legal dramas. It features a good cast doing a solid job (Gosselaar stops tearing up by the second episode), but none of the plotlines feel remotely new. Actress Natalia Cigliuti is introduced in the second episode as Roberta Gilardi and everyone watching will instantly spot where her story seems to be headed (and I for one will be greatly disappointed, but not in the least surprised, if the show travels down that well-worn path).
Yet, despite its feeling of familiarity, the show is somehow intriguing. The cases in the first few episodes are moderately interesting, and there are plenty of characters running around doing plenty of different things which helps as well.
Perhaps it is the very sense of familiarity of Raising the Bar that works for the program. Despite being a legal drama that purports to explore our broken (or at least slightly bent) justice system, it requires very little of the audience. The cast is a good one, they're attractive and enjoyable to watch, and one has to pay very little attention to the story to know exactly what is taking place.
Raising the Bar premieres on TNT September 1 at 10pm.