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Television & Radio | TELEVISION REVIEW

'D.A.' presents a strong case

March 19, 2004|Carina Chocano | Times Staff Writer

Murders are committed, then solved, as personalities clash on ABC's new limited-run series "The D.A.," which steps in for "20/20" for four consecutive Fridays starting tonight.

The characters in "The D.A." display the types of traits that used to be commonplace among TV drama law-enforcement types, before the genre was co-opted by lovable eccentrics, quirky neurotics, bumbling crypto-geniuses and gruff-but-lovable tortured souls. With the exception, perhaps, of a sluttish campaign consultant -- and she disappears after the pilot, anyway -- "The D.A." is almost disconcertingly free of colorful oddballs.

Exuding a vaguely familiar, sincere, almost old-fashioned air, right down to its just-the-facts title, the new drama feels sturdy and reliable, if by and large unremarkable. (Justice always prevails, and just in the nick of time too.) "The D.A." is the perfect Friday-night block-filler.

Steven Weber stars as Los Angeles District Attorney David Franks, the kind of character often described in press releases as "embattled." As an elected official, Franks must juggle between doing what's right and doing what looks right (or good, anyway), always a tough call in today's image-conscious judiciary system. To make matters worse, half his staff hates him, an old friend reveals he is running against him and his campaign manager -- the minx -- sleeps with the cop assigned to guard a protected witness on the eve of that witness' murder. No wonder she is gone by Episode 2, and no wonder the D.A. is prone to bouts of high-strung ill humor and paranoia. Franks is one Shrinky Dink short of a total meltdown.

Politics is never far from the D.A.'s mind -- he has gubernatorial aspirations; it's California, who doesn't? -- so he can't afford to indulge in the crusading righteousness favored by his dashing deputy D.A. (and the son of a murdered congressman) Mark Camacho (Bruno Campos), nor in the weary pragmatism of his dewy-eyed, chain-smoking sidekick, Chief Deputy Lisa Patterson (Sarah Paulson). (At least she smokes in the pilot. The nasty habit is abandoned, along with the mop of curls, in Episode 2.)

Paulson's gawkily adolescent tough-but-tender air -- never more apparent than when she's defending her boss from bad press, loose campaign consultants and himself -- and her proprietary tone suggests she may be harboring feelings for the D.A. that exceed the bounds of the professional. When leopard-print-wearing campaign manager Ellen Baker (Aunjanue Ellis) disappears in Episode 2 and is replaced by the equally suspiciously slinky Jinette McMahon (Michaela Conlin), Lisa can barely meet her gaze but gives her the full pout and eye-roll treatment the moment she walks out of view.

Young Camacho, however, is beyond reproach. Nothing gets past the guy, be it illegal, immoral, unseemly or even -- and this does not seem entirely outside the realm of possibility -- unsanitary. While questioning a victim's extramarital lover, he takes the opportunity to double-entendre his disapproval for the affair. He's a maximum-penalty-seeking missile.

Head of major crimes Joe Carter (J.K. Simmons), meanwhile, has a major beef with Franks, and the boss' former friend, the deputy mayor, is running against him.

But if Franks, with his round, glassy eyes and his rapid, darting movements, comes off looking a little bit reptilian at first, by the end of three episodes he has molted completely. His impressive, Miss Marple-ish powers of deduction and his dazzling coercive tactics go a long way in rehabilitating the image. But it's the rock-and-a-hard-place stuff that's really compelling.

From the start, "The D.A." makes one thing amply clear. You know what? It's hard being the D.A. And if getting this point across requires cascading avalanches of procedural prose, so be it. Explanations are clunky, but interesting in an "Oh, that's how they got Martha" kind of way. And they are downright fascinating when you consider that former Los Angeles District Attorney Gil Garcetti, who held the office during the O.J. Simpson trial, serves as a consulting producer. Whether Franks' paranoia is meant to represent Garcetti's actual or perceived experience we may never know, but the serving-two-masters, Scylla and Charybdis, "You're tearing me apart" stuff is crystal clear. Consider the uncanny similarities. Episode 2 involves a murdered sitcom star, an abused wife, at least two hot-button social issues and a flamboyant celebrity attorney doing her best to taint the jury pool by way of Larry King. If that doesn't sound familiar -- or set our sympathy on a new, unexpected path -- flashy private attorney Charlotte Ellis' (Felicity Huffman) assessment of the oncoming P.R. disaster just might.

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