There are so many baffling, distracting details in Steven Bochco’s new legal procedural Raising the Bar—star Mark-Paul Gosselaar’s inexplicable hairstyle, the bare-bones set, the never-fashionable sateen blouses, the retrograde sexual politics—that it is hard to stifle one’s cackles and take a deeper look to see if something’s there. Hard, but not impossible.
The problem isn’t the form. The very word “procedural” might inspire a moan, but judging from the endurance of three versions of Law & Order on constant rotation; season after season of cop shows like the screwball, high-tech Bones and the domestic-paranormal Medium (yes, it is a cop show, at its heart); and House, which manages to obscure its rote medical formula with Hugh Laurie’s alluring theatrics, we clearly haven’t tired of the problem-process-solution kind of entertainment. Yet each of these push the procedural into the future, try to take it somewhere new. Raising the Bar, however, attempts to drag us back to the era of that other Bochco drama, L.A. Law, where men were men, women wore shoulder pads and sex stank up everything.
The show, which premieres Monday, Sept. 1, at 10 PM on TNT, focuses on two groups of lawyers in Manhattan. There are those in the district attorney’s office, specifically a young, hot blonde (she wears a push-up bra!) named Michelle Emhardt (Melissa Sagemiller), and a young, hot African-American guy named Marcus McGrath (J. August Richards). They face off frequently in court against the young, hot attorneys from the public defender’s office: Mark-Paul Gosselaar’s Jerry Kellerman; Teddy Sears’ über-WASP Richard Patrick Woolsley IV; and Natalia Cigliuti’s ethnicky “Bobbi from Brooklyn.” Their cases are all presided over by Judge Trudy Kessler (Jane Kaczmarek), who is so power-hungry and overzealous in her sentencing that one shivers at the thought there might be an actual judge in New York City like her. (That’s not a compliment.) And of course, there’s romantic drama: Kellerman loves Emhardt, but Kellerman lusts after Bobbi; Emhardt uses Kellerman for sex, and uses sex to intimidate others; Woolsley loves the head public defender, Roz (Gloria Reuben), but Roz is uninterested in a white boy who wears cuff links. And the kicker? Judge Kessler is carrying on with her assistant, Charlie, a closeted gay man who at one point hooks up with Rickie from My So-Called Life (Wilson Cruz), dressed like a character from Rent.
And how about poor Mr. Gosselaar? Miraculously, he managed to wipe out the stain of his role as Zack Morris on early ’90s kitsch teen show Saved by the Bell by grabbing a spot on Mr. Bochco’s NYPD Blue—but only after the latter show was long past its prime. Raising the Bar is clearly a big gig for him. So it’s a shame that they’ve made his character, who should be a hero, so raggedy and inconsistent. He’s got the icky, slightly curly shag ’do and oversize sportcoat of a slacker, but the eternally furrowed brow and big mouth of a crusader. He’s a romantic, but he’s lewd. He loves the law, but disrespects the judge. Worse, as Kellerman, Mr. Gosselaar has been stripped of the charm that contributed to his modicum of stardom in the first place. He never flashes the Eddie Haskell grin, and instead suffers under the weight of his ratty khaki suit, doing his best to look serious.
But Raising the Bar is a procedural, right? So how are the cases? You’ve seen it all before: on The Practice, on Law & Order, on Mr. Bochco’s own L.A. Law. Kellerman does everything he can to have charges dropped against a schizophrenic who doesn’t want to take his meds. Emhardt prosecutes a man wrongly accused of rape just so she can get a conviction. There’s also some weird racial stuff going on: the African-American assistant D.A. goes too hard on a young black kid who is accused of assaulting a white bully; the WASP-y defender who digs Ms. Reuben goes too easy on his client, a young black woman on welfare, also accused of assault. But it’s all so subtle that it’s impossible to know if there’s some intended message, or if the writers are simply doing the tango with another ’80s plot point.
This isn’t necessarily Mr. Bochco’s fault. Cop and medical shows have stayed current by integrating the ever-terrifying advances in technology that make crimes both harder and easier to solve; the legal procedural has been stuck with pretty much the same old bag of tools: a crime, a perp, a lawyer, a judge. There’s nothing 21st-century about any of it. Still, I do wish there was some reason for Mr. Gosselaar’s hair, which was never sexy, not even in the ’80s. It might be, à la Samson, the show’s fatal flaw.