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A lawyer changes teams

A slick defense attorney turns prosecutor in `Shark' on CBS.

September 21, 2006|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

LAWYERS. Love 'em, hate 'em. They are the defenders of the innocent and the prosecutors of the guilty, and they are also the prosecutors of the innocent and the defenders of the guilty, and television has looked at them from every angle: hero, villain, antihero, figure of fun, sexy thing. Dedicated D.A.s, plucky public defenders. And every lawyer show implies a deeper worldview, as well, depending on where the protagonists sit and who their enemies are: that the streets are dangerous, or that the system is corrupt. Cops are good, cops are bad. Prosecutors sacrifice the truth to win; defense attorneys are, by the nature of their job, morally compromised.

The new CBS series "Shark" -- as in, "Why don't sharks eat lawyers?" -- gives you a little of this and a little of that. It stars James Woods as Sebastian Stark, an all-but-infallible, high-priced defense attorney who, when we meet him, is getting a wife beater acquitted on a charge of attempted murder. Moments later (in your time), he learns that his client went home and finished the job, and Stark goes into a monthlong tailspin (also brief in your time) that ends only when the mayor of Los Angeles (Carlos Gomez, appropriately Latino) guilts him into service as the head of a new high-profile trials unit.

Its purpose seems to be to fight fire with fire, using Stark to beat other lawyers as slick and ruthless and expensively well prepared as he is. ("I'm sick of the poor going to jail for jaywalking while millionaires kill each other without missing a massage," says the mayor, whimsically.) It's full-time pro bono work, essentially, with the city the sole client.

Totally against this arrangement is Stark's old nemesis, Dist. Atty. Jessica Devlin (Jeri Ryan, Seven of Nine on "Star Trek: Voyager"), who doesn't much like his tactics. (Oh, these moral high-grounders.) She assigns the office losers to his team -- making them just like the Dirty Dozen, or the Bad News Bears -- and though they come in both sexes and a variety of colors they are as yet undifferentiated as characters. (The exception is the ambitious Stark wannabe played by Sarah Carter, who is all "Pick me, teacher" the whole time.) Stark schools them in his dicta: "Trial is war," "Truth is relative." "Your job is to win," he says. "Justice is God's problem."

It's a lot like "House," in this respect -- prickly genius hectoring younger colleagues into excellence -- but it has a gooier center. "Shark" producers (including Brian Grazer, of "The Da Vinci Code" and the upcoming NBC series "Friday Night Lights") seem more inclined to let the self-involved, workaholic Stark learn to feel, especially to feel the pain of others; in writerspeak, it's the "journey" he's on.

Woods is a versatile actor, but there is a kind of James Woodsiness about most everything he does -- a super-caffeinated hum rooted deep within his metabolism. He talks fast and blows up real good, which makes him a nice fit for Stark -- too nice a fit, almost, given how the part redoubles his natural intensity. A little of that can go a long way, which is perhaps why I prefer him in his quieter scenes with teenage daughter Julie (the excellent Danielle Panabaker), who is there to help Stark become human. (Were those tears glistening in his eyes? I believe they were.)

Spike Lee directed the pilot from a script by creator Ian Biederman ("Crossing Jordan"), but apart from some flighty camera moves and a cameo by actor and former Laker Rick Fox (which I am perhaps inaccurately ascribing to Lee's well-known basketball jones), there is scant evidence of directorial flair.

The episode galumphs loudly across a checkerboard of scenes -- Stark at work, Stark at home, Stark at work at home -- that achieve neither the convincing quality of detailed realism nor the dumb fun of untethered melodrama. Most critically, no real heat is generated in the courtroom sequences, and when the traditional on-the-stand breakdown occurs and the accused confesses all, it comes just a little too fast and easy.

("Professional courtesy," by the way. Why sharks don't eat lawyers.)



Where: CBS

When: 10 to 11 tonight

Rating: TV-14 DL (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14, with advisories for suggestive dialogue and coarse language)

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