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Raising the Bar: Steven Bochco goes back to court

Either Steven Bochco’s new legal drama Raising the Bar is a coup for TNT (big-time Emmy show-runner brings his dramatic expertise to basic cable!) or a coup for Bochco (ratings-hot channel allows a fading broadcast-network stalwart to revive himself!). Whichever way you see it, the show (which debuts Monday night) feels like a good fit for both Bochco and TNT. It neatly captures a middle-ground medley of gray-area intelligence, character energy and solid production values, meaning it’s not slick and sensational enough for the networks yet not self-consciously edgy enough for HBO (or even for the gold medalist in grimness, FX, which had Bochco’s last series, the short-lived Iraq drama Over There). Bochco’s specialty is the timeworn genre updated to reflect squishier moral times, but cast with beautiful, believably smart actors to make everything go down smoothly. Raising the Bar — about the belief systems and maneuvers at play in the courtroom triangle of judge, prosecutor and public defender — is definitely Bochco feeling his way back into what’s comfortable with the ensemble format he’s honed over the years from Hill Street Blues through L.A. Law and NYPD Blue. Having David Feige, an ex-public defender and law professor, as a co-creator, writer and supervising producer helps — the series seems to always eschew Hollywood-style courtroom theatrics and gotcha moments for resolutions that seem truer because they involve mistakes, bad timing, compromises, dubious ethics and sweated-out smarts. Of course, Bochco’s casting acumen is also evident, from the charming Mark-Paul Gosselaar as the shabbily attired, long-haired, bleeding-heart advocate whose weakness is calling out the system’s faults when he should be working it for his client’s benefit, to a fiery Jane Kaczmarek as a process-obsessed judge whose strict rulings allow no room for humanity in the courtroom. Did the world need another law show? Arguably not. But if they’re going to keep entering our homes like those pesky jury duty summonses, I’ll take an agreeably lively genre workout from a tested veteran like Bochco over most.