So guys, you’re either on the bus or you’re off the bus.
—Sebastian Stark (James Woods)
Shark opens on James Woods. This is right, for he is the reason to watch. You would have guessed this before seeing an episode, even the pilot directed by Mr. Spike Lee. Woods’ Sebastian Stark, also known as “Shark,” is a smart-ass and a self-identified “winner,” a super-successful L.A. defense attorney who can’t be bothered with details like his clients’ morality or guilt.
For wife beater Gordie Brock (Tony Daly), this means Stark can define “justice” as the need to prove his intent to kill his wife “beyond any reasonable doubt.” While Gordie peeks at jurors from his chair at the defense table, Stark reminds you of Richard Boyle, Salvador‘s fast-talking con artist/journalist, slowed down and designer-suited. He’s efficient and persuasive, even seeming to believe his own story about Gordie’s lack of intent, or that sending him to “meetings” after his acquittal will alter his violent pattern. As the press throngs outside the courthouse door, Stark lords it over the Madame District Attorney Jess Devlin (stern-faced Jeri Ryan), then slithers away to sing along with “Mack the Knife” on his car radio.
But just when it seems Stark is the second coming of Victor Garber over at Fox’s Justice, he changes. More precisely, as his precocious daughter Julie (Danielle Panabaker) puts it, he doesn’t change, he changes “sides” (he describes her as “the white teen Oprah,” an apt jab that only makes her dual role as dad’s conscience and show’s chorus seem more contrived). Stark’s self-image collapses when Gordie not only kills his wife, but also sits cocky in his bloody wife-beater t-shirt, awaiting the arrival of his lawyer: “Why not save everybody some time and money,” he snarks at the cops, “And let me go right now?” Stark looks disgusted, then walks away, locking himself up in his mansion and refusing to face the tv cameras he once embraced so avidly.
The change is instigated by Mayor Manny Delgado (Carlos Gomez), who brings Stark in to head a new “high profile crime unit” at the DA’s office, inserting him just below Jess, so these two can tangle weekly. Truthfully, though, it looks to be no contest. Everyone in the office looks on Stark as a god, for his years of beating them repeatedly and ruthlessly. The fact that he’s now trying to put criminals away instead of taking their money only means that they have a chance to “learn from the best.”
He enters the cardboard file-box-filled basement room they’re calling an office and introduces his squad of youngsters by name and thumbnailed foible: Billie Willis (Kristen Wilson) is “smart, passionate,” and “lets emotion cloud her judgment,” Martin Allende (Alexis Cruz) is “great on paper” but “weak on his feet [and] couldn’t close a window,” and etc. As Stark asserts that he has files on every one of these judgmental idealists, the camera takes what appears the usual tack, cutting from him to each pert target.
Into the depths of their discomfort, the House-like curmudgeon Stark dumps his “cutthroat manifesto” (“Trial is war,” “Truth is relative,” and your personal opinion is irrelevant). The minions look chastised, outraged, or bored, mustering their best morally superior faces. “Winning is the only thing that matters,” asserts Stark, the synthy soundtrack speeding along behind him. Speaking in platitudes, Stark sounds like one more slick lawyer on one more slick lawyer show. Worse, the team’s first case is resolved in a way that’s as pat and corny as any episode of Murder, She Wrote, with lessons learned all around.
And yet. It’s James Woods. While he might appear to be one more movie star who’s come to tv for whatever reason, Woods is also singular, alternately gripping and unfathomable, so manifestly screwed-up at various points in his career that he makes Stark’s manufactured hysteria look tame. And he doesn’t need to go full-speed to be effective. Seated and mostly still as he discusses his first prosecution with the victim’s mother (Melissa Leo, quietly vivid as always), Woods almost makes you forget the sentimental piano and tedious directive from the grieving parent: “Terry could never have done what [his killer] said he did. And if I’m to go on living, I need the world to know that.” Urgh.
This first plot includes a couple of cultural-commentary elements worth noting. One, the killer is Jenny (Mimi Michaels), an aspiring pop star of the Paris Hilton/Britney Spears variety: not precisely talented, but wildly ambitious and (rightly) convinced that sex and/or scandal is the most effective way to pitch herself. Two, the case is structured such that Stark needs to “restore [the victim’s] reputation,” partly because Jenny’s attorney, Anita (Lynn Whitfield), is as ruthless as he ever was, and partly because this is how celebrity works, whether it concerns criminal lawyering, politicking or pop-starring. Defense teams rejigger what once seemed moral absolutes in order to make their claims seem reasonable. As Stark phrases it, “We gotta create our own truth.”
Sometimes, this truth lurches into bland pronouncement: to make the dead guy a “victim of murder” as opposed to a rapist who got what he deserved, says Stark, his finger pointing to punctuate each syllable, “We need to make that jury. Hear. His. Voice.” Other times, show looks to play its trendy L.A.-ness against its thematic interest in the perversions of celebrity. Stark gets the word on Anita from Rick Fox, playing himself because he can (Stark also makes a crack about the Knicks, a neat joke in proper appreciation of Lee). And, when he meets with Anita and Jenny to offer a deal, the girl asks, “Are we talking about jail jail or Martha Stewart jail?” Yeah, yeah, we can work something out, mutters Stark, as the crass and dim-witted Jenny is rendered beneath your contempt.
More interesting, slightly, Anita accuses Stark of continued self-interest at the expense of everyone else: “You hopped the fence,” she charges, “Like being a defense attorney is something you need to rehab from. Your client went bad, you melted down. You sold out your partners you sold out your profession, and now, Stark, I’m going to beat you like an African drum.” Aside from the pseudo-yipes effect of this moment (also pushed along by that same annoying synthy soundtrack), Anita is right. This is exactly what the show is proposing, that Stark’s switcheroo is not just more of his perpetual misconduct, but that he is going to be rehabbed, with help from his underlings and his wondrous daughter, to boot.
Surprisingly, the Julie-Stark relationship, stale on paper, also looks to be the show’s most compelling aspect. They discuss the case while dad’s hitting golf balls against a big net in his backyard. He keeps his eye on his balls as the camera looks through the net, Stark in the foreground with club, Julie in the background, perched perfectly Lolita-like on the porch: “Are you asking if I’m a virgin?” she fairly sings. “‘Cause all my friends’ dads are really sphinctered out about it.” Observing that she can talk to her mom (his ex) and her shrink, and, as Julie says, “Knowing would totally wig you out.”
“Exactly,” says dad, his sunglasses maintaining his fakey cool enigma. Not knowing is how Stark has managed his career, refusing responsibility and at least pretending to believe his own performance. To underline, he has a mock courtroom in his basement, where he rehearses his arguments until they are “perfected.” As his young students gape in wonder, he points out the details: a chair used by Clarence Darrow, a lamp used by Judge Ito, and a jury box “from the set of To Kill a Mockingbird.” He gloats, he glowers, he even makes a silly shift that lets the kids feel better about themselves. Yes, it’s all a show: “I am great and yet, I am humble,” Stark smirks. Now, if only the scripts can get as messy as Woods’ performance, Shark might go on.