The way the blonde woman with the fatal head wound lies in that chic Malibu swimming pool, blood emanating from her like smoke from a cigarette, and framed, well, dead center at the beginning of the pilot of the new Fox series Justice, you would be forgiven for thinking this was a visual logo of sorts for Jerry Bruckheimer Films and Television, established purveyors of sleekly lit prime-time carnage. (Remember that ominous Mark VII hammer Jack Webb used years ago?) I know, Bruckheimer’s already got the highway and the tree and the lightning as his company imprint, but since he cornered the market on death-fetish series — how much you want to bet the attendees to all those successful artful-corpse exhibitions are couch-potato graduates of the CSI Gore Inurement Program? — I thought for a split second the Hollywood titan might have finally given in to the sensationalism of his special niche.
And then, moments later, a logo really does appear. This one for the take-no-prisoners law firm that eats prosecutors for breakfast and will carry the dead woman’s accused husband to high-profile acquittal. Its name — no kidding — is TNT & G. Apart from sounding like the Looney Tunes counsel Wile E. Coyote might employ to sue Road Runner, the three men and one woman of this so-high-powered-they-could-form-their-own-electrical-grid partnership are essentially this year’s model from Bruckheimer of hell-bent procedural crime solvers. They don’t brood and stare and build to a righteous boil like the CSI teams. Professional legal asshole Ron Trott (Victor Garber) is in full damage-control fume from the get-go, sneering at a Nancy Grace type beaming from his murder-suspect client’s television, then yelling at the widower’s children — “Get ’em out of here!” — when their doe-eyed neediness might get in the way of his scheme to squirrel Daddy away for a quiet turning in so the D.A. can’t stage an arrest in front of cameras. In fact, the wicked cat-and-mouse surrounding this kind of image gamesmanship is so cynically juicy that I’ve started to think of Justice as the hopped-up, flashy, guilty-pleasure antidote to David E. Kelley’s inevitably overearnest, scrappy-defender series The Practice. After years of Dylan McDermott’s whiny outrages, Garber’s wild-eyed, bullying performance — like he’s about to head-butt whomever he’s barking at — is deliciously nonsensitive.
It’s also certainly a far cry stylistically from the no-frills toggling between shabby law offices and nondescript courtrooms that characterized The Practice, or the emphasis on conscience-swaying oratory of Law and Order. Justice is so high-tech in its defense strategy–as–battle campaign ethos — focus groups, cable-news spin, mock strategy sessions, juror dossiers — and so generous with its morph-transition special effects that, if you added a joystick, it could be an Xbox title. It’s an impressive operation: Trott and his gang set up a motion-capture studio at the death scene to re-create potential accident scenarios, while at their high-rise, high-design offices, motive expert Luther Graves (Eamonn Walker) whip-cracks his platoon — er, junior lawyers — into shape while manipulating documents on gigantic computer screens, with hand gestures à la Tom Cruise in Minority Report. And if a wonky medical expert can’t stop using fancy words like hematoma and laceration — look at the focus group, we’re losing them, we’re losing them! — then you browbeat him until Mr. Smart Guy nervously blurts out an analogy any dopey jury could understand: namely, the head being like a dropped watermelon. (As Rebecca Mader was shouting “Simpler! Simpler!” at the bespectacled expert, I suddenly had a vision of how script sessions must go in Hollywood.)
At the end, after the verdict is announced, Justice apparently intends to offer up an epilogue showing how the initial incident really occurred, and maybe, I’m assuming, we’ll occasionally be left soiled by who TNT & G gets acquitted. But at the root, this is essentially Perry Mason redux, only the vibe is less ’50s genteel murder mystery than 21st-century shock and awe. It’s got a crazily entertaining whoosh to it, even if the forensic-detail thing has gotten incredibly tired, and there’s no relationship to human emotion in evidence or, for that matter, the actual messy tedium of a trial timeline. But in its cynical acknowledgment of the micromanipulation that characterizes modern jurisprudence and the hardships of getting a fair trial in today’s rumor-dominant 24-hour-news world, Justice may make for an oddly compelling fictional counterpart to whatever sensationalized legal case has you shamefully sneaking the occasional peek at Court TV.
JUSTICE | Fox | Wednesdays, 9 p.m.
Young and Political on The Hill
The protective shield of people around fifth-term Democratic U.S. Congressman Robert Wexler on the Sundance Channel docu-reality series The Hill are not defense lawyers, but they’re full of opinions about what their boss should say and do as a minority-party stalwart with strong views. This six-part show, which covers the period from just before the 2004 general election to last Thanksgiving, doesn’t actually focus on Wexler per se, but on his passionate, hard-charging, collegial and, naturally, self-important young staff. (In case you aren’t clear that the theme of the show is the youth behind the power, the driving rock-guitar soundtrack is there to remind you.) There are bits and pieces of personal lives — roly-poly chief of staff Eric Johnson has a child with his life partner; smart-suited legislative aide Halie Soifer has been dating a Republican to even her own bewilderment — but the cameras mostly stay in the work world as opinion statements are hashed out, policy details are debated, press conferences are arranged, and long hours ultimately get the best of everyone’s nerves. There are woeful looks post–Bush reelection, snippy exchanges over who’s hogging Wexler’s time, jokes about floundering in a Republican-controlled Congress, and barely contained glee over the possibility of indictments in the Valerie Plame scandal.
The problem is that seemingly everything is touched on — from Social Security to Supreme Court candidates to Hurricane Katrina — but the narrative is little more than a series of snapshots of how a congressperson’s office runs. Director Ivy Meeropol would have done well to take a cue from less high-minded reality series and include interstitial one-on-one interviews to give form, color and emotional reflection to all the inner workings. Instead, by the time I suss out what the lightning-quick conversations are about, Meeropol — who herself was once an aide to a congressman — moves on to another scene. Maybe this is about not boring a potential youth audience; maybe it’s to heighten the sense that it’s a fast-moving world when you’re constantly reacting to the admittedly frantic cycle of national and international incidents that has characterized the Bush administration. But even when your subjects move a mile a minute, there’s no harm in slowing down to get a fuller picture.
THE HILL | Sundance Channel | Wednesdays, 9 p.m.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.