TV Review: 'Raising the Bar'

Markpaulgosselaar_raisingthebar_240There are some interesting moments in TNT's new drama Raising the Bar. At times the show gives you a real sense of the copious amounts of case work public defenders and prosecutors are forced to churn through, and the little dances lawyers and judges do to move cases through the system.

Unfortunately, though, those moments aren't what Raising the Bar is about. The bigger stories are all too familiar to those who have watched L.A. Law or Boston Legal or any number of courtroom shows, so despite some solid acting and those snatches of realism, the show doesn't feel like all it could be.

The series, co-created by multiple Emmy winner Steven Bochco and lawyer-turned-author David Feige, centers on Jerry Kessler (Bochco regular Mark-Paul Gosselaar, sporting some truly bad hair), a fiercely idealistic lawyer in the Manhattan public defender's office, and his circle of young-attorney friends who work on both sides of the criminal court system.

Since they're relatively young, they usually don't work high-profile cases. The second episode features Jerry and his prosecutor/paramour Michelle Emhardt (Melissa Sagemiller) on opposite sides of a murder trial, but they also have things like simple assaults and low-level robberies on their dockets.

That allows more room for the show to leave the courtroom and explore the back-and-forth maneuvering opposing attorneys do to keep the wheels of justice turning, and the political games lawyers and judges sometimes play. Those scenes, for me, are where Raising the Bar is at its best: The show takes some time to let viewers appreciate the tremendous volume of case work court officers have to carry and the very human qualities -- ambition, idealism, stridency and cynicism among them -- that can get in the way.

Janekaczmarek_raisingthebar_240The cast is pretty strong from top to bottom, with J. August Richards, Teddy Sears and Currie Graham all doing good work with limited screen time (though ER veteran Gloria Reuben is underused as the head of the PD's office). Multiple Emmy nominee Jane Kaczmarek plays a crabby, letter-of-the-law judge who could be a one-dimensional caricature, but she deepens the character with a world-weariness that suggests she was once an idealist too. She's also not so rigid that she won't listen to her law clerk (Jonathan Scarfe), who's both a voice of reason and a much younger lover (though based on what we see of Scarfe's character outside the courthouse, that's likely to get complicated).

If only there were more of that in the series. The majority of Raising the Bar, unfortunately, is filled with the kind of racy-but-not-really dialogue that's a common feature of Bochco shows, and cases that allow the attorneys to make moralizing speeches about capital-J Justice. Each of the first two episodes features Gosselaar's Kessler delivering impassioned oratories about how The System is screwing his client, all of which we've heard countless times before in any number of courtroom dramas.

It ends up as pretty middle-of-the-road TV fare. There's nothing particularly objectionable about Raising the Bar, but there's also not much that demands devoted viewership.
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Raising the Bar premieres at 10 p.m. ET Monday, Sept. 1 on TNT.

For more on the 2008-09 season, check out Zap2it's Fall TV Preview.

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