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Trial show does reality an injustice

Times Staff Writer

“Justice,” which premieres tonight on Fox, is the latest hour of prime-time real estate to be handed over to Jerry Bruckheimer, who will one day produce every show on television. (And you thought it was going to be David E. Kelley, didn’t you?) It’s a “legal procedural” that aims to show how the system is manipulated and mediated nowadays, up where the trials and defendants are “high-profile.” It is so resolute in sharing the dirty secrets of modern jurisprudence -- of which it does not apparently disapprove -- that it could almost be called pedantic if there weren’t so much yelling going on.

The title is perhaps ironic given that the show implies, not unreasonably, that law, like medicine, works better for the rich than for the poor (and for the guilty rich better than for the innocent poor), and that unless you have someone picking out your tie, using fancy software to vet your jury and coaching your every public utterance, you do not stand a chance in court.

The overall thrust of “Justice” and many specific details of tonight’s pilot are -- what’s a neutral way to put this? -- eerily similar to those seen in “The Staircase,” Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s 2004 documentary about a murder trial and how it plays out as a contest of conflicting narratives. These include a fall down some stairs and a theory of how the wounds of the deceased could come to resemble those from a brutal beating; a defense forensic expert who has difficulty making himself understood; and a missing blunt instrument that pops up at the 11th hour (or, in “Justice,” merely appears to).

The show is a bit of a blunt instrument itself, relentlessly aggressive in tone and speed, amped at times to the point of absurdity by morphing effects and digital traveling shots that take you into the guts of things. Not 45 seconds into the show we are flying through the roof of a house (we get a glimpse of insulation along the way) to join our legal eagles and their client.

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“Justice” also bears a resemblance to fellow Fox series “House,” which likewise features an abrasive genius abetted by a team of bright younger colleagues -- with a similar gender/ethnic breakdown, in fact -- who come together to anatomize difficult cases and split up to attack them. Victor Garber, from “Alias,” is the Robert Shapiro/Johnny Cochran/F. Lee Bailey/Melvin Belli of the group, its public face and silky, if sometimes raised voice -- “the master of media spin.” Garber has a background in musical theater, and there’s a light-operatic flow to his delivery, pitched to the last row in the house whether he’s speaking to a crowd or at close quarters with one other person. Although it barely resembles the way that real people talk, it absolutely suits the tone of the show.

Tom Nicholson (Kerr Smith) is “the All-American Face of Not Guilty,” as he is called by fancifully named Suzanne Fulcrum (Katherine La Nasa), the host of a tabloid legal show that appears as a sort of Greek chorus. Nicholson is from Nebraska, which makes him a more down-to-earth character than if he were, say, from Encino, and prefers to defend the actually innocent. Luther Graves (Eamonn Walker of “Oz”) and Alden Tuller (Rebecca Mader) round out the team.

Crucially, they are not afraid to ignore the advice of their own high-priced experts, which shows us that they are somehow better than the system they spend much of their time trying to work. Because these are our heroes, their opponents, by the cheap logic of melodrama, must be seen as less pretty and righteous, and cops and prosecutors who on other shows get to be the good guys are here represented as morally suspect. (It is almost sad the way that the district attorney is made to glare and stew like the villain in some old silent serial as Nicholson builds his case.) For all its apparent technical accuracy and some real-world name-dropping, “Justice” feels no more lifelike than “Perry Mason.” But there is a market for that sort of thing.

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‘Justice’

Where: Fox

When: 9 to 10 tonight

Rating: TV-14 DLV (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14, with advisories for suggestive dialogue, coarse language, violence)


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