Next to the new fall series themselves — depending on the quality of the shows in question, maybe more than the programs — TV critics love discussing time slots. That's because they know television history is littered with unique, cleverly written, well-acted productions that died a quick and unseen death against the juggernaut hit on another network. No matter how great a show was, if it was up against, say, Cheers in the '80s, Home Improvement and Seinfeld in the '90s or Everybody Loves Raymond in recent years, its chances of survival were only slightly better than Tiger Stadium.
This 2010 fall schedule holds its fair share of time period intrigue. Who will grab the edge in Thursday's new must-see battle of CSI, Grey's Anatomy, Fringe, Nikita and Steve Carell's last season of The Office at 9 p.m.? What chance does our Detroit 1-8-7 have Tuesdays at 10 against last season's top new drama, The Good Wife? Which prime-time icon can keep more eyeballs in their living rooms at 10 o'clock on Friday nights, Jimmy Smits (Outlaw) or Tom Selleck (Blue Bloods)? And has anyone else noticed that Hellcats faces Hell's Kitchen at 9 p.m. Wednesdays? (Up against Criminal Minds, Law & Order: SVU and the Emmy-winning Modern Family, it may not matter.)
However, my TV schedule tells me that one of the greatest time slot dogfights of all time may be shaping up beginning at 10 tonight (Sept. 22). Thanks largely to Law & Order emperor Dick Wolf, especially over the last decade or so, the great gods of television seem convinced there's no drama like legal drama. And in one hour on Wednesdays, we have a remarkable opportunity to compare the past, present and future of the genre: Its convoluted present, represented by The Defenders on CBS (Channel 62 in Detroit), squares off against a glorious future in The Whole Truth on ABC (Channel 7). And next week, the old guard joins the fray in a new guise when Law & Order: Los Angeles premieres.
The magna cum laude of this law class is unquestionably The Whole Truth, brainchild of Detroit's own über-producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who in turn has brought together some of the brightest minds from his CSI franchise (Jonathan Littman), the original Law & Order (Ed Zuckerman), Without a Trace (Tom Donaghy) and Dark Blue (KristieAnne Reed) as executive producers. You can sniff elements from all these series in the pilot, which carries the rare and titillating promise of being unlike anything we've seen on TV before.
Instead of focusing on the prosecution or the defense, The Whole Truth looks at life from both sides now, as a complete case comes to resolution each week in a Manhattan courtroom. The adversaries are former Yale Law School classmates and flirtatious friends, scrappy, freewheeling criminal defense attorney Jimmy Brogan (Rob Morrow, neither as Jewish as in Northern Exposure nor as heroically stone-faced as in Numb3rs), and prim, unbending New England native Kathryn Peale (Maura Tierney, returning to the series television grind after battling breast cancer and replacing Joely Richardson, who left the role) for the DA. They are like pro athletes who can be best buds off the field but seek to destroy each other once the whistle blows.
By watching the pendulum of justice continually swing as new evidence is uncovered or discredited, and being privy to the verbal parry and thrust away from the courtroom — spiced by some occasional smack talking — this evenhanded drama moves the viewer's sentiments back and forth repeatedly during the hour. The ultimate verdict comes as a mild surprise no matter whose case you favor; you honestly don't know how the jury's going to vote. The show jumps forward and backward in its narrative, Memento style, which may make it hard for the addle-minded and some seniors to follow. But if you're up for sharp, intelligent drama, here's The Whole Truth: This is it.
With the lawyer-show format having been twisted and turned every way but loose, The Defenders seeks to differentiate itself through location. Jim Belushi, revived from 182 episodes of According to Jim, and Jerry O'Connell, fresh from his star turn as porn producer in the summer movie shrieker Piranha 3-D, play a pair of brash and flashy Las Vegas attorneys, based on two real-life Strip counselors. And while LOLA (Law & Order: Los Angeles had a nickname months before its debut) has a name, franchise history and considerable star power to draw upon, led by Oscar-nominee Terrence Howard and Alfred Molina, they're still casting the show: Peter Coyote was added in a recurring role as district attorney just last week. That's enough to make one leery.
Three distinct courtroom shows are about to throw themselves on the mercy of the audience, but the verdict will be yours.
Networking: So, what did you think of last night's premiere of Detroit 1-8-7? I have seen next week's episode ... and it's better than the first. ... In one of the oddest casting decisions I can remember, teeny-pop heartthrob Justin Bieber will make the first of several guest shots on CSI with the season premiere at 9 p.m. tomorrow (CBS), setting off ferocious household battles across America. Dreamy-eyed preteen girl: "But Mom! Dad! It's Justin Bieber!" Parents: "Are you crazy? We're not letting you watch CSI!"
Jim McFarlin is a media critic for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
Here comes the judge: Detroit's own Judge Greg Mathis has fashioned a nice career out of poking fun at litigants in his daytime TV courtroom. On Saturday, Oct. 2, his friends and colleagues get to show him how it feels. The Eastern Michigan University Black Alumni Chapter at his alma mater is hosting a roast of the celebrity jurist at 7 p.m. at Pease Auditorium in Ypsilanti. The alumni chapter's largest fundraiser in a decade, proceeds from the event will provide book scholarships to deserving undergraduates. Admission is $20, $10 for EMU students. For more information or to purchase tickets, call 313-355-4154 or visit www.emuba.org.