Television incision on the frontal lobe,

Capitalism or mind control.

You know big brother ain’t a TV show,

It’s how we roll with what they know.

— Jon Spencer, “Everything is Under Control”

“I used to be like you, real hard case, master of the universe,” Stark (James Woods) tells his latest adversary, the oh-so-odious Oscar Riddick (Michael Rooker). “At the end of the day, I was running scared.” At the moment, neither is running anywhere, but riding in Riddick’s limo, as the crook is trying to buy him off. Problem is, Stark sniffs, the money Riddick’s offering is piddling: “No offense, but 50 grand doesn’t even cover my dry cleaning.”

This is Stark at his most effective, fast-talking, smarmy, and utterly condescending. Never mind that, as Shark resurfaces for its final Season Two episodes, Riddick intends to have his way, that he has all kinds of legal types and elected officials in his pocket. Or that he is, as one of Stark’s young DA team members puts it, a “sociopath.” Stark takes him on full-force. It doesn’t hurt that it’s Jimmy Woods and Rooker conducting the stare-down, as these two display their much admired weird-and-creepy chops. As they sit opposite one another in the car’s backseat, both Stark and Riddick adopt cocky-boy poses, their faces cruel and their bodies tense while pretending to be relaxed, indicating that they mean to fight to metaphorical or literal deaths.

The occasion for their conflict is a previous connection, concerning one Sarah Belkin: as a previous episode has revealed, Stark helped to cover up her 1996 murder by Jason Normandy (Jonathan Banks), now imprisoned for the crime. At the beginning of “Bar Fight,” Stark appears before a panel that threatens to disbar him for his shady past (technically, he’s “accused of blatant and sordid misconduct”). Stark asks for a “second chance.” Though he acknowledges his previous bad values system, now, since working for Los Angeles DA Jessica Devlin (Jeri Ryan), he’s come to see a kind of light. “I feel,” he tells the panel, “like I may be doing some good. So I guess the question is, can the good I do outweigh the bad that I’ve done in the past. It’s something that I ask myself every day. And I still don’t have the answer. I don’t know if it’s possible to change, but I sure as hell am trying.”

Granted, Shark is exponentially less interesting when he’s attesting to his own good-guyness, but the speech sets up his suspension while the panel considers the case (when his young team suggests he’ll survive the storm, Stark reverts to form: “I appreciate the optimism but the thermometer in my butt popped the second I walked into that hearing room”). Still, he gets one more chance, in the form of a proposal by Jordan Westlake (Paula Marshall) of the State Attorney General’s office. (This following a minute in a jail cell , where Stark is surrounded by thugs with bald heads and tattoos: “You gotta tell your public defender to challenge the search,” he tells one new buddy, “Everything they found in your crib was inadmissible” — it’s hard to resists Woods speaking MTV). Jordan’s offer is off-book: he’s to go “underground, by whatever means necessary,” to connect Riddick to Belkin and Normandy. In return, she says (after brushing off his yucky suggestions that they share a “night of passion”), Stark can get his life and license back, and she might get a ticket to her boss’s job, when he moves up the food chain to the Justice Department.

Of course, Stark takes the deal, whereupon the rest of the episode has him and his squad of whippersnappers digging up dirt on Riddick. Stark first enlists his hunky investigator Isaac (Henry Simmons); as tends to happen in the series, the other team members get wind of the trouble and all insist on helping their cranky boss save his neck — even Raina (Sophina Brown), after she plays her usual role, worrying about legal niceties. “This is Black Op, kids,” Stark exults, “no fingerprints. We are gonna be working out of my house.” This means he gets to argue, as usual, with daughter Julie (Danielle Panabaker), once again angry at him for putting their wealthy lifestyle in jeopardy.

Even as the plot offers up mostly predictable corruptions and moral choices (as when Stark visits with the dead girl’s mom to convince her that he wants to make up for his repulsive past behavior), the couple of meetings between Stark and Riddick are choice. At Riddick’s private “racetrack in the high desert,” they chat over the sound of engines and Jon Spencer’s guitar. When Riddick warns his new nemesis to back off (“A lot of people have come after me, Mr. Stark. It never ends well”), Stark picks up on his use of car racing imagery to come back: “I always liked a good racing metaphor,” he snarls, “Here’s one for ya: prepare to crash and burn.” Urrgh!

Shark‘s appeal has never been a matter of plots (which are conventional) or the eager-to-learn, occasionally skeptical, eventually grateful youngsters (who might as well be on House). The show is about Stark, whether sniping with Jessica (who is off this week) or with his serial opponents (the father-daughter material is repeatedly weak, especially when her schoolmates and boyfriend issues started appending teen-angst onto the legal and extra-legal, often quite hysterical, dramas). “Bar Fight” reinforces the formula: when Stark is jousting with near-equals, acknowledging all his sneery, mean, and ignoble proclivities, the show’s essential dullness seems inconsequential.

RATING 5 / 10