Determined to make a point, defense attorney Liz Canterbury (Julianna Margulies) follows her associate into the men’s room. The camera just behind her back reveals that Russell (Ben Shenkman) is standing at the urinal. Appearing not to notice, she swings around so she can look him in the face, insisting that their client, a young man accused of killing a child, is innocent. “I can’t do this,” moans Russell. She’s shocked that he wants off the case, maybe even out of her firm. No, he assures her, he only can’t pee while she’s watching. Relieved, she turns on the tap and begins to chant, “Water, oceans, rivers, streams, water oceans, rivers, streams.” One problem, at least, is solved.
Yes, Liz is ballsy. And no, Canterbury’s Law is not subtle. Like other recent series — Damages, Saving Grace, The Closer — it offers up a gritty, restless professional woman in what looks like perpetual crisis — or at least series-TV crisis. Forceful but also vulnerable, flawed and brilliant, Liz is plagued by her self-righteousness and, judging by a couple of episodes, the show is plagued by her rightness.
Or, more accurately, she’s right when it comes to her clients, not so right when it comes to everyone else. Per formula on today’s Tough Women TV, Liz makes mistakes and pays for them. “I know when someone’s lying to me,” she assures her law professor husband Matt (Aidan Quinn). As soon as she says it you know she’s missed something, not about this week’s case, that accused child killer, Ethan (Charlie Hofheimer), but about Matt, not to mention her own choices, her muddled efforts to keep straight with herself. The series premiere, directed by Mike Figgis, opens on her own lie: she’s in bed with craggily handsome private investigator Frank (James McCaffrey), the kind of manly man who keeps portraits of dogs on his walls. When she tells him she “needed someone who could stop me from feeling so numb,” the cliché is regrettable. But it does suggest that Liz’s back story is more interesting than her weekly procedurals.
That story — her own child gone missing some years before — shapes the distance between Matt and Liz, as well as her own dense, John-Walshy commitment to her job. Because she’s not a prosecutor, though, Liz isn’t granted the sort of instant gratification of convictions. Her more roundabout route has Liz defending innocents by revealing the truth during ostentatious courtroom scenes, the kind where the guilty party breaks down on the stand, Perry-Mason-style.
This pattern does not bode well, especially as it appears to involve regular dishonesty on the part of the prosecutor, which leads in turn to equally effective but obviously ill-advised defense cheats. “Murders are my métier,” she tells Matt, by way of explaining that her cases are always demanding, sometimes daunting. Her history grants poignant punctuations to assorted interactions (“You can’t imagine what it feels like,” says one aggrieved mother, “Unless you’ve lost a child,” which leads you to wonder how Liz’s missing boy was not a major local news story). But for the most part, it grants her hard drinking and cranky edicts to her associates a tragic, comprehensible context: she’s not really surly or cruel, she’s just dedicated and damaged.
More effectively, Liz’s experience informs her understanding of the collusions between law and media. She knows how to perform for cameras on courthouse steps (“My mere presence,” she says “speaks volumes”). Watching a TV report on Ethan’s case, she schools young associate Molly (Trieste Kelly Dunn). The spot opens on the grieving family, she says, “Pillars of their community. Dissolve to grade school picture of their missing son, and then we push in. Wait for it… there’s our man Ethan. I mean, why don’t they just Photoshop horns and a pitchfork?”
Molly observes and nods, eager to absorb her lesson, even if she does always seem a step behind. Like Sebastian Stark or Gregory House, Liz exploits and looks after a crew of youngsters, including Molly, Russell, and Chester (Keith Robinson), all eager, variously rebellious, and ever on the verge of being sucked up by the opposition. This threat isn’t precisely logical, as the Deputy Attorney General, Zach Williams (Terry Kinney), isn’t likely offering the kids a pay raise (though the point is made more than once that Liz’s firm is a “sinking ship” and shorthanded [Liz claims she fired the receptionist because she was “stupid,” but, to the show’s credit, she might be lying here].) Instead, Zach embodies a kind of angry practicality, less intuitive than his opponent, though just as wily.
That’s not to say Zach is without charms. When Russell, who apparently left Zach’s office because of a disagreement on moral grounds, suggests that he’s covered up police wrongdoing in the child killer case, Zach doesn’t just deny it. Tossing scraps of his sandwich at Russell, he tries to turn the question around: “You feckless puppet! Where do you get the stones to accuse me?” When that doesn’t work, Zach makes his point more clearly. “You talk just like her,” he says, “You talk just like that bottom-feeding bitch.”
Zach’s focus on how Liz talks is instructive. While he considers his own shortcuts as means to virtuous ends (the killer in jail, the case closed), he judges her similar tactics as iniquitous. “I tell the truth,” Liz insists, even as you know she doesn’t. Even when she’s playing good mom to clients in need of sympathy and succor, she reframes her compassion as ferocity. Believing Molly is becoming immersed in a case, Liz sets her straight: “I could love the person on the stand body and soul,” she says, “And still rip their heart out on cross. Could you? Until you can, you have to stop mooning over pictures of dead kids.” Even as she seeks vengeance, Liz appears to know that justice is something else.