New 'Defenders' Lacks Depth of Old

Those recalling Reginald Rose's great old CBS legal series, "The Defenders," may look forward to seeing it resonate more than three decades later as a new Showtime movie arriving Sunday. And more Showtime movies based on "The Defenders" are on the way.

The first, called "Payback," has stately E.G. Marshall back as Lawrence Preston, patriarch of the original family law firm that practiced idealism so vividly in the 1961-65 series. It has Beau Bridges as Preston's law professor younger son, Don (succeeding the older Preston son, Kenneth, who had been played by the late Robert Reed). And it has Martha Plimpton as Kenneth's daughter, M.J., a former prosecutor.

What it doesn't have, sadly, is a story worth telling or characters who are the least bit interesting. Most of them are not even likable.

Affirming that some genies should remain in their bottles, this bad movie has the crusading Prestons resurfacing like chalky, chain-rattling apparitions from the past, evoking pleasant nostalgia but being no more relevant today than long-haired, acid-dropping hippies from the '60s.

Not that the Prestons were anything but square even back then. It was the legal battles the show depicted that made "The Defenders" so progressive. Yet that doesn't transfer to the present.

What was edgy and distinctive in TV's earlier days, when "The Defenders" tackled themes that were then controversial, now seems weary and redundant in "Payback," compared with the daring and the sophisticated plotting of some contemporary legal series, from NBC's "Law & Order" on down.

The Prestons here represent a father (John Larroquette) on trial for shooting down a man who served a prison term for raping, sodomizing and psychologically maiming the defendant's young daughter. The script by Peter Wolk and Andy Wolk (who also directs) has Don practicing law the old-fashioned way: by the seat of his pants, blubbering in the courtroom being central to his strategy as a menacing but ineffective judge (Yaphet Kotto) looks on helplessly.

Meanwhile, Lawrence lobs his occasional sage pearls over the story's impenetrable wall of talk, shrieking and maudlin preachiness, and M.J. reeks of ideals and good intentions.

Although the Wolks aim to make Don and the defendant sympathetic, Bridges is so gratingly smug and sanctimonious here, and Larroquette so unrestrained, that you find yourself pulling against both of them. Not that the outcome in this illogical script is ever in doubt.

*

* "The Defenders: Payback" airs Sunday at 8 p.m. on cable's Showtime. The channel has rated it TV-14-VLD (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14 because of violence, coarse language and suggestive dialogue).

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