I Need a Four
You’re not a lawyer show aiming to break new ground when your first case is saving an innocent black man on death row. And you’re doubling down on that un-originality when you cast a hip-hop artist as your black man (here, RZA, of the alluringly mournful demeanor). But even if Outlaw doesn’t mean to surprise anyone, it does get points for sheer audacity.
The series premiere—on 15 September, before the series moves to its regular and more difficult Friday night slot—opens on a hyper-urgent situation: RZA’s Beals has just hours to live. His lawyer, Al (David Ramsey), rushes down the carefully lit prison hallway in order to announce he’ll be swinging for the fences by filing an appeal with the Supreme Court. Here, wouldn’t you know, a justice is in need of redemption. Cyrus Garza (Jimmy Smits), a notoriously conservative Bush appointee, first appears at a poker table. “Bless me, Father,” he prays, “For I need a four!”
Come to find out, Cyrus’ damage extends beyond his disrespect for institutional religion: he has guilt too, as his beloved liberal icon dad recently died in a car accident that Cyrus survived. When he’s booted from the casino by a couple of burly cop-types, he smiles, escorted by his doting assistant Mereta (Ellen Woglom), who winces as he flirts/protests, “You’re a law clerk, not a nursemaid!” Fro the doorway, the cop-types shake their heads: “He‘s on the Supreme Court?” one wonders. “No wonder the country’s going down the crapper.”
Even as viewers are feeling pummeled by this commentary-as-exposition, Cyrus promptly runs into the next step in his transformation, that is, a crowd protesting Beals’ execution, who have tracked the justice to the casino (in other words, his “habit” is no secret): accosted by a gorgeous, self-proclaimed “card-carrying” ACLU member (ouch), who reminds him of his dad’s legacy, then promptly rewards his egregiously bad pickup line. A few hours later, Cyrus casts an un-conservative deciding vote in the appeal, which annoys the heck out of Senator Vidalin (Richard Portnow). To underscore his villainy, Vidalin (what a name!) pulls up in a dark limo in order to threaten Cyrus: “If this new direction of yours is because of your dad’s death, see a therapist. If it’s a midlife crisis, screw your secretary, but do not shift the balance of the Supreme Court. We put you in there, we can take you out.” Ooga booga.
Upshots being what they are, the point of these very speedy plot turns is to catapult Cyrus into his new career, an ex-Supreme Court Justice, saddled with massive debt and remorse, as well as an inclination to righteous vengeance, a quick wit, and a team of youngsters comprised of his former SC clerks as well as a black-leather-jacketed, whip-smart private investigator, Lucinda (Carly Pope). It’s not clear yet whether she has a dragon tattoo, but she does like to irritate fancy-suited, colossally ambitious Eddie (Jesse Bradford), most memorably when they visit a body farm (where donated corpses are exposed to elements, so CSI aspirants can learn their trade) to seek the most rudimentary info regarding the Beals murder case. While Eddie grimaces and complains, Lucinda points out the usefulness of science in such instances: “I know that you right wing whackos have an issue with that, but unfortunately, Jesus isn’t around to let us know exactly when [the victim] died.” The camera is angled up from the ground, where a blue-skinned body rots in the foreground. “People lie,” Lucinda asserts, “Maggots don’t.”
Along with such shrewd insights, the uncomplicated characterizations and bantery relations between Cyrus and his squad call to mind a host of other shows where ingenious maverick teachers instruct whiz-kids, say, House or Shark. Like Jimmy Woods’ equally lunatic and frequently entertaining lawyer show, Outlaw leans on its star’s charisma and takes aim at the U.S. legal system even as it confirms its viability. Like Shark (a well-heeled ex-slimeball-defender turned mostly-virtuous DA), Cyrus is an extremely charismatic pack leader, sending forth his minions to sort through unbelievably easily obtained evidence while managing their own romantic tensions and adoring him madly. (By the time he gets to Arizona in a future episode, Cyrus and company will be pointing out the vagaries of anti-immigration laws and federal versus state turf wars.)
If the formula in Outlaw is tedious, the details and diversions are sometimes fresh. When Cyrus and Merita head off to a hospital in search of a doctor’s testimony, they’re put off by a cranky administrator and their case is—of course!—collapsing before their eyes. And yet, while Merita harrumphs and worries, Cyrus finds a distraction that makes a point. He gazes at the Pain Assessment Tool pinned to a wall (those ridiculous charts featuring faces in various states of discomfort, so patents might find a number score for their pain levels: if you’ve been to a hospital recently, you know how annoying these are). And he comes to see how the prosecution has interfered with his witness, Cyrus numbers his escalating pain level: “I’d say we’re at a solid four,” he scowls, his expression mirroring that of a colored cartoon face.
As this moment alludes to the four Cyrus needed earlier, you might guess that he’s found a kind of grace—in pain, in self-expression, in institutional retardation. Cyrus’ gloss on the scene unfolding suggests as well the series’ gloss on itself. As the consequence of the legal interference becomes clearer, Cyrus adjusts his face: “This is why,” he snarks, “We’re now at a 10.” Like so many plot turns in Outlaw, this one is too convenient, too silly, and not a little audacious. It helps that the show knows it.