‘The Deep End’

Television Critic

ABC’s “The Deep End” is being touted as a new “Grey’s Anatomy” for lawyers, and frankly I think “Grey’s” creator Shonda Rhimes should sue. Not for plagiarism but defamation. On the other hand, maybe the comparison was actually her idea because five minutes into the pilot of “The Deep End,” you will find yourself longing for even the worst episode of “Grey’s.”

Poorly conceived, badly written and indifferently acted, “The Deep End” is a jumble of terrible ideas from start to finish. In this economy, with so many trained professionals suddenly unemployed, does anyone really care about a quintet of freshly minted lawyers struggling to survive a vicious Los Angeles law firm?

You know it’s vicious right from the get-go because it’s called Sterling (just as if no one at ABC had ever heard of “Mad Men”), it has those truly astounding L.A. views long associated with corporate chicanery, and it’s run by a guy everyone refers to as “The Prince of Darkness.”

His real name is Cliff Huddle and he’s played by Billy Zane, who appears to be channeling Arnold Vosloo’s Imhotep from “The Mummy” films. Seriously, there are moments in the “The Deep End” pilot when it seems that any minute now, Cliff’s jaw will drop to his chest, releasing a river of flies.

Which would, unfortunately, be more interesting than what actually occurs, mainly Cliff’s profit-over-principles dialect crashing up against the equally dull social conscience of the recently returned founding partner Hart Sterling (Clancy Brown). This background battle is tediously reffed by Susan (Nicole Ari Parker), also a partner and Cliff’s wife, a situation inexplicable on so many levels it defies discussion.

Into these barely churning waters four young lawyers have been tossed, but not before receiving their personality assignments from some shabby screenwriting clinic or other. There’s Dylan (Matt Long), the fresh-faced idealist; Addy (Tina Majorino), the hard worker with doormat tendencies; Beth (Leah Pipes), the femme fatale whose brazenness hides a basic insecurity; and Liam (Ben Lawson), the office rake, first seen with his pants around his knees. A fifth shows up late in the pilot: Malcom (Mehcad Brooks) is described in press notes as “driven, funny, supremely confident.” Acting as cavalier surrogate to the group is Rowdy, played by Norbert Leo Butz. (Really? They had to call him Rowdy?) Once dedicated to social justice but now errand boy to Cliff, his job appears to be administering tequila shots and the occasional homily.

Just writing those descriptions could drag a person into a deep sympathetic depression, especially for Butz, a Tony winner for “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” and Majorino, who, after doing such great work in “Big Love,” is forced to whittle herself down, figuratively and literally, for this show. Butz at least looks like he’s having a good time.

Nothing that happens in the pilot remotely resembles the law in action; everything is clearly geared toward life lessons and relationships, with Addy crushing on Liam, Dylan crushing on paralegal Katie (Rachelle Lefevre) whose pre-Raphaelite tresses steal every scene in which she appears, Susan still lovin’ that clearly strayin’ man of hers while Liam and Beth turn to each other when there’s nothing better to do. Not that anyone cares.

None of the actors seem quite comfortable in their roles, and who can blame them when the characters are so stiff and off the rack. Even the sets seem borrowed, here from “L.A. Law,” there from “Melrose Place” and everyone drinking their troubles away a la “Grey’s.”

A few clicks more to the left, and “The Deep End” could easily be a smart satire of all such shows, but as it is, it’s just dated and predictable, a pale, wavering shadow of better shows that have passed this way before. The sooner it surrenders and sinks, the better.