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Television review: 'Outlaw'

Jimmy Smits stars as a Supreme Court justice who takes off his robes and starts his own law firm.

September 15, 2010|By Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times Television Critic

You'd think it would be easy to find a successful vehicle for Jimmy Smits since "The West Wing" ended in 2006 — but clearly it's not. He's a big guy, and big guys are hard to fit — they need big concepts and those are tough to pull off. Two years ago, Smits did an extraordinary job as a serial killer in training on Showtime's "Dexter" but he was only available because CBS's ambitious Cuban American drama "Cane" had failed so miserably the previous year.

Now he's starring in NBC's legal/criminal procedural "Outlaw" and the outlook is not terribly promising. As Cyrus Garza, Smits plays the youngest Supreme Court Justice ever. He's put in place, apparently, by nefarious conservative forces that leveraged Garza's troubled relationship with his father, an iconic liberal activist, and his penchant for fast living. We meet Garza in Vegas where he must be dragged away from the tables to break a tie vote in the case of a troublesome death-penalty conviction.

Fortunately, as he is being herded into his car, a comely young activist calls him on his filial betrayal and the next thing we know Garza is not only spitting in the face of his conservative keepers and voting to grant the convicted man a new trial, he's stepping down from the bench so he can be the poor guy's defense attorney.

Apparently, you don't need to give the Supreme Court even two weeks' notice.

Every procedural lead needs a superpower these days, so it's not surprising that all the good ones were taken. "The Mentalist" reads people, "Castle" knows narrative, "House" is unfettered by emotion, "Bones" is forensic anthropologist. What's left but former Supreme Court justice, and all that entails?

Garza quickly assembles One of Those Teams, a mini-Justice League that includes: the righteous defense attorney (David Ramsey) who tries to keep Garza on the straight and narrow; the winsome young law clerk (Ellen Woglom) desperate to prove she's not just another pretty face; the sexy private investigator (Carly Pope), who can get any necessary evidence with a flick of a keyboard or flash of décolletage, and the smug young Yalie (Jesse Bradford), whose job is to lustily spar with the PI and regularly tell everyone that Garza's insane.

All that's missing is the blind guy and the computer nerd but they were already taken, most recently in daring combo on USA's "Covert Affairs."

Written by John Eisendrath, most recently executive producer of the short-lived "My Own Worst Enemy" and "K-Ville," the pilot of "Outlaw" attempts to be hip and contemporary with references to Politico and the body farm. The problem is it skirts around the unbelievably ginormous elephant in the room — that a Supreme Court justice could step down with absolutely no media or political fallout.

Whistling and kicking dirt like maybe we won't notice, Eisendrath drops Smits in a virtually impossible situation. In a scant hour, the actor must convince us that he is a playboy/gambler/lawyer so corrupt he allowed himself to be put on the Supreme Court for the sole purpose of supporting some vaguely defined "conservative agenda" who, after a come-to-Jesus moment in Vegas, throws himself in full reverse and becomes a crusading defense attorney.

That would take a bigger man than Smits to pull off, and though Pope occasionally rises above the feisty leather confines of her character to provide a moment's distraction, we are left viewing the pilot as either cynical manipulation or just plain silly. From "thinking aloud" scenes in which the team tosses around a Nerf football to a most unfortunate series of conversations between Garza and his law clerk, the only thing that makes "Outlaw" unique in a swollen genre is its ability to trip over its own feet so early on.

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