Here’s the first question to ask about Raising The Bar: why would anyone hire Gloria Reuben and then sit her behind a desk? As Roz Whitman, head of the Manhattan public defender’s office at the show’s center, she is introduced quite literally by that desk. As Jerry Kellerman (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) galumphs into her office to announce his case for the day (apparently this office assigns just one per), the camera pitches down to glimpse the collection of bumper stickers on her desk, revealing her predictable political leanings: “Greenpeace,” a peace sign, and a couple of generic girl power slogans, “Speak your mind even if your voice shakes” and “Well-behaved women rarely make history.” It’s only one minute into the series premiere, and you’re hoping against hope that Roz will not be well-behaved.
You’re encouraged to believe this by the fact that Raising the Bar is a new series from La Famiglia Bochco, created by Steven, executive produced by Daynah, and directed by Jesse. Not to mention Reuben’s own remarkable energy and allure, on display in series from Homicideto The Agency to, most prominently, ER. But while Bochco’s past work has offered up compelling characters, lively ethical dilemmas, and challenges to institutional mythologies, the new show looks to be mainly soapy, with savvy Roz left to instruct eager white boys.
Whether reining in Jerry’s enthusiasm and shows of frustration or resisting the (invisible) charms of another subordinate, Richard Patrick Woolsley (Teddy Sears), who has turned down the opportunity/edict to work for his father’s swanky firm and is instead making the legal world better for poor people. Noting that Richard is wearing cufflinks to try a “weenie whacker” case, Roz is reduced to drawing our attention to such characterization (by calling him “Señor Swanky”) and reminding him that his flirtations with her are out of bounds (as when she comments she could buy a car for what his suit costs and he smiles, “I’d watch it: class rage makes me hot!”).
While this sort of episodic-TV romancing is surely annoying (will Roz give up her principles for this charming young blond), what goes on in the DA’s office is just plain yucky. ADA Michelle (Melissa Sagemiller) is introduced enduring her egregious boss, Nick (Currie Graham). Caught staring at her, he protests that he’s “Just daydreaming about a hot healthy breakfast: two perfect swollen mounds of creamy yogurt, each topped with a pert succulent raisin.” Um, eww. When she drops the phrase “hostile work environment,” he has a legal defense ready, then collapses predictably when she shuts the blinds, sits in his lap, and starts tugging at his zipper. Protesting that he has a brief in five minutes, Nick grants Michelle’s win: “Don’t,” she says, lacking some authority, “ever let your great big head make promises your little bitty head can’t keep.” Double eww.
And, oh, the wit is not limited to sexual harassment among colleagues. When Jerry makes it down to the courthouse for his case, he runs into law school buddy and current ADA Marcus (J. August Richards, exceptional in a lousy part, again). Jerry—who is supposed to be the bright, sympathetic center of this series—accuses Marcus of doing the wrong thing, that is, abusing “his people” with the blunt instrument of the system. Don’t you know Marcus is ready for that one (because of course, he’s heard it before, being a black urban ADA): “My people, Jerry, are the good citizens of this fine city. Your clients, on the other hand, are criminals. Yes, it’s your people, Jerry, that terrorize my people.” (Perhaps Marcus should also beware that whole class rage business.)
Jerry’s people, in fact, tend to be innocent and rather grossly manhandled by the legal system. Exhibits A and B: the pilot episode’s Calvin (Charles Malik Whitfield), wrongly identified by a rape victim, the second episode’s supposed first-degree murderer, in need of a witness who has been conveniently shipped back to Guatemala by the DA’s office, and the alternately sweet and scary schizophrenic in “I Will, I’m Will” (airing 9/22), who only wants to be able to be free of his court-ordered meds (a nice line for him, describing the photographer he reportedly assaulted: “I knew he was from Homeland Security, you could tell just by looking at him”).
While the particulars of these cases are not uninteresting, they are mostly lost amid the swirl of Jerry and Michelle’s careening between romance and competition, betrayal and “crossing the line.” Just how this line is defined, crossed, and redrawn is the primary subtext for Raising the Bar, partly meted out in the deals between the PD and DA offices, and mostly outlined in Jerry’s passionate speechifying about injustice and racism and class warfare (even his friends say he’s “got a Don Quixote complex”).
It’s no surprise that Jerry not only has occasional, secret help (from upright Marcus, from conflicted Michelle), or that he has an especially colorful adversary in Judge Trudy Kessler (Jane Kaczmarek), instantly ripe to spin off into her own afternoon TV show. Vengeful, egotistical, ambitious, and highly aware of the power she wields, Kessler means to teach Jerry a lesson—apparently every week. This means she cites him for contempt (so he can spend some quality bonding time with Calvin), expects what Roz calls “groveling,” and has her own prize in mind, election to higher office based on her brilliant and (at least on the surface) unblemished judicial tenure. So you know her fundamental opposition to Jerry, she announces, “When I was a public defender, I never kidded myself that any of my clients were actually innocent.” Then again, she didn’t have her early career scripted by Steven Bochco.
That’s not to say Kessler is entirely on the up-and-up—and if her foibles are conventional, Kaczmarek at least makes them grand. Advised by her law clerk Charlie (Jonathan Scarfe), yet another drinking buddy of Jerry, Michelle, and Marcus, Kessler looks desperate and unsmart, someone who would be shocked and a little jealous to see what Glenn Close’s firm over on Damages gets away with. While it’s true that, as Jerry tells Charlie, “You have that bitch wrapped around your finger,” troubles lurk in this office too: Charlie’s fate looks more or less sealed when he meets Raphael in a bar—played by the still charming but terminally typecast Wilson Cruz.
All this is not to say that Raising the Bar lacks any legal, political, or moral substance. It only means that such questions are submerged beneath clumsy and clichéd interpersonal games. Thus far, Roz looks awfully patient, willing to send forth her minions in the name of righteousness or, barring that, getting the best possible deals for clients without means. It looks unlikely she’ll be making history in the near future.