‘Just Legal’: See it for its senior partner

Times Staff Writer

On the new WB drama “Just Legal,” Don Johnson plays a criminal defense attorney with a sea of lazy plea bargains in his past (he hasn’t cross-examined a witness in 15 years) and an ocean of sorrow in his eyes. He’s like Paul Newman in the opening scenes of “The Verdict,” mournfully and drunkenly playing pinball in a Boston bar, in the winter of his career.

Johnson’s kind of the Paul Newman of TV (his Don Johnson-ness comes before the role he’s playing), and the part that’s been given him -- Grant Cooper, Esq. -- is a gift. It’s a gift in the same way that “Boston Legal’s” whacked attorney Denny Crane is a gift for William Shatner. Once again, we find the hair of the old-guard TV actor strangely fascinating -- in Johnson’s case, it’s a coif two shades less peacock than that of Michael Jackson attorney Thomas Mesereau.

“Just Legal” comes from the machine of Jerry Bruckheimer and the legal pad of Jonathan Shapiro. His bio says he was a special assistant to U.S. Atty. Gen. Janet Reno during hearings into the raid on the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas; he also clerked for David E. Kelley on “Boston Legal” and “The Practice.”

On its face, “Just Legal” isn’t special. It’s rather old-fashioned, except that there’s something real about the chemistry -- and a budding story, based in character -- between Johnson and his costar, Jay Baruchel, who plays David “Skip” Ross.

Ross (in what I guess makes this a WB show) is an 18-year-old wunderkind fresh out of law school who can’t get hired at a big downtown L.A. firm (reverse ageism) and goes to work doing “street law” for Cooper, who’s holed up in a dusty, dark office above the Venice Boardwalk.


I didn’t know there were lawyers there, but the show makes decent use of the environment, the juxtaposition of Johnson’s loping shabbiness with the bikini-clad Rollerbladers whizzing by, Cooper only sporadically mustering the energy to look.

Baruchel, like Johnson, is interesting to watch -- he hints at an old man’s bent-forward posture, and he has an abashed way of speaking. This doesn’t help in court, and with Cooper too defeated or tired or perverse to do the work himself, much of “Just Legal” is about watching Ross learn the ropes from chagrined judges, with Cooper (who, if he knows nothing else, knows juries) acting as his corner man.

But there’s also a show-within-the-show, and it has to do with watching Johnson in another TV series go-around, after the salad days of “Miami Vice” and the strange durability of “Nash Bridges.” Grant Cooper flatters the Don Johnson iconography. It’s less in the impassioned speeches than in Cooper’s throwaway lines (“She seems nice. She did stab a guy to death, though,” he says of tonight’s client) and in the scene, next week, in which Cooper reveals he’s buddied up with the kid because maybe, just maybe, ole Skip’ll reel in the big one.

Because as Cooper sees it, he’s “one good murder away from being Mark Geragos or Johnnie C.” Now that has the makings of an ongoing story. “Just Legal” needs to exploit this, Cooper’s vigorous corruptibility, so that when he turns good -- and he will, degree by degree, every week -- we’ll know it’s also a momentary lapse in judgment, a slide toward the virtuous, like on Fox’s “House.”


‘Just Legal’

Where: The WB

When: 9 to 10 p.m.

Ratings: TV-PG L (may be unsuitable for young children with an advisory for language)

Don Johnson...Grant Cooper

Jay Baruchel...David “Skip” Ross

Executive producers Jerry Bruckheimer, Jonathan Littman, Jonathan Shapiro.