Review: The system is rigged: Why the new CBS show ‘Bull’ is in step with the times. And yet ...


“Bull,” which premieres Tuesday on CBS, is the brainchild of “Dr. Phil” McGraw, the TV empathizer, and Paul Attanasio, who created “Homicide: Life on the Street,” and has been based on, or inspired by, or has some tangential relation to McGraw’s pre-celebrity experience as a trial consultant. Any physical resemblance between McGraw and Michael Weatherly, who plays the eponymous “Dr. Bull” — sounds like? — is strictly Hollywood.

The show follows the lines of most every CBS procedural (which is also to say most CBS dramas). A brilliant, insightful, somewhat troubled or troublesome genius — whose reading of people and situations is all but psychic and who never met a rule he/she wouldn’t break in a pinch — leads a crew of diverse types in the pursuit of justice. Here we have the neurolinguistics expert (Geneva Carr), hired away from the Department of Homeland Security; the master of the mock trial (Freddy Rodriguez), who also happens to be Bull’s ex-brother-in-law; the investigator (Jaime Lee Kirchner); the caustic style consultant (Christopher Jackson); the quirky, somewhat nerdy younger person (Annabelle Attanasio, daughter of producer Attanasio).

It’s not just about the law, says the neurolinguist, who is also Bull’s right-hand woman – “the way to win is to know your jurors down to their neurons.” To that end, Team Bull gathers heaps of privacy-violating intel about each juror and then plugs it all into “a 400-factor matrix that is scary in its predictive efficiency. We’ll know how they vote even before they do.” Creeped out yet?


What could prove difficult or troubling in the long run – unless it proves entirely beside the point – is the idea, baked into the premise, that guilt or innocence or evidence mean nothing next to one’s ability to game the system, to perform mental jujitsu on a jury. “Bull” is a procedural made for the Year of the Rigged; sending a signal that they know what’s what, the writers give one juror a bumper sticker that says, “The system is rigged.” (“Wow,” says Bull, sincerely or ironically — it’s hard to tell — “that’s cynical.”)

At the same time — and to be expected, given the Dr. Phil connection — “Bull” has a soft, squishy core. The pilot is filled up with people filled up with feelings (or refusing to feel them, but having them anyway). “Give yourself what you wish you could get from somebody else,” Bull tells a young client eaten up with confusion. Bull will not only get you off, innocent, wounded accused person; he will make you better.

The courtroom scenes are both melodramatic and unconvincing, with a surfeit of murmuring from the galleries and a prosecution that somehow never thinks to object no matter how provocative the defense gets. The production makes frequent use of man-on-the-street interviews and social media overlays, which makes it feel prematurely dated, rather than of the moment.

It’s a little ridiculous, and rarely convincing. Yet given how closely “Bull” adheres to what has been for the network a highly successful formula and a cast that makes the best of the least promising lines, it’s not hard to picture it doing well, all around the world, and crushing its fans when it finally leaves the air, sometime in the late 2020s.



Where: CBS

When: 9 p.m. Tuesday


On Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd

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