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Temporary Reprieve for ‘Great Defender’ : Television: Fox brings back the legal series it had canceled after only one episode. But whether the show continues remains a question.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

New TV series routinely fail in the ratings and get yanked off the air--but after only one episode? That’s what happened last March to “The Great Defender,” an all-but-forgotten series that returns tonight on Fox.

The well-reviewed legal drama stars Michael Rispoli as an ambulance-chasing lawyer who gets recruited by a prestigious, blue-blood law firm. In its March 5 premiere against the CBS powerhouse “60 Minutes,” “Great Defender” attracted only 6% of the available audience. “They did not promote it at all, to the point where the first two or three promotions Fox ran, they quoted the main character’s name wrong on the air,” said executive producer George Schenck. “His name was Lou; they called him Joe.”

“Obviously, whoever makes the promos never watched the show,” said Schenck’s partner, executive producer Frank Cardea.

“The Great Defender” has seven episodes left to air, but don’t get too attached. Think of them as a miniseries. Even though Fox had said at the time it yanked the show that it would bring the program back in a better time slot, the network waited too long and last month let the contracts with all the actors lapse.

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That includes the red-hot Rispoli, who played Sandra Bullock’s obnoxious admirer in “While You Were Sleeping.” He just finished filming “Homeward Bound II” and “Feeling Minnesota,” starring Keanu Reeves, and now he’s shooting “The Juror” with Demi Moore and Alec Baldwin.

Rispoli believes his show got lost at the network because it was ordered by former Fox Entertainment president Sandy Grushow, who was replaced before the series premiered by new entertainment president John Matoian.

“Naturally, you buy a new house, you generally rip up the old carpeting and put in something new,” Rispoli said in his thick New York accent. “I think they were trying to distance themselves politically from the old regime.”

“It hurts, because they loved it when we pitched it, and they loved it when they bought it,” Schenck said.

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Fox executives declined comment on “The Great Defender.” But part of the problem from the start was that even the old regime didn’t seem too sure what to do with the series.

“What Sandy said to us is that Fox shows fall into two categories: Aaron Spelling youth-oriented shows, or black youth-oriented sitcoms. This was neither of those,” said Schenck, who with Cardea produced the TV series “Crazy Like a Fox” and “Pros & Cons.”

“When we were doing the pitch, Sandy said, ‘We love it, but we have our doubts. I don’t know if it’s a Fox show,’ ” Cardea said. “But they tested it, and it tested so high that we assumed we were on the fall schedule. We weren’t, and we were disappointed. Then two weeks later we get a call that they are going to pick it up as a backup series--but at least we weren’t dead.”

“We went through various stages of death and revival,” Schenck said.

“And yet never has there been a time to rejoice,” Cardea said.

Final death appears imminent. As networks often do in the summer, Fox will burn off the episodes it has already paid for, with virtually no hope of a series renewal.

“It’s not impossible, but realistically it’s not going to happen,” Schenck said. “Years ago, when I was younger, I would have said anything could happen. But not now.”

* “The Great Defender” airs at 9 tonight on Fox (Channels 11 and 6).

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