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Review: The military procedural ‘The Code’ is like ‘JAG’ but in the Marines with a pleasing hint of ‘The Good Wife’

Review: The military procedural ‘The Code’ is like ‘JAG’ but in the Marines with a pleasing hint of ‘The Good Wife’
Dana Delany, center, and Anna Wood, right, play members of the Judge Advocate General Corps, lawyers prosecuting and defending Marines, in the CBS series "The Code." (Mark Schafer / CBS)

The “code” in "The Code," a new legal procedural premiering Tuesday on CBS, is the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the law that governs the armed forces. It is the same thing enforced in the network's venerable "JAG," which from 1997 to 2005 (with one earlier season on NBC) followed a group of Navy lawyers and gave birth to an adorable litter of spinoffs, named "NCIS," "NCIS: Los Angeles" and "NCIS: New Orleans." This is a network that knows what works for its audience and does not hesitate to do it again and again.

Whereas "JAG" focused on the Navy, with a hint of the Marine Corps, "The Code" flips the mix; this is Marine Corps with a touch of Navy. (That means less blue in the color scheme.) Uniforms aside, the team in which the series embeds us is much like that of any 21st century investigative legal drama in terms of personalities and demographics.

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As in "JAG," the military workplace includes both prosecutors and defense attorneys, which means that good friends will regularly face each other in court; there will be bantering. And yet, most often (I have seen four episodes, so percentages are subject to change), opponents will collaborate, because everyone's on the same team when it comes to the truth.

If it almost always feels like a television show, an artificial world in which things happen for dramatic impact rather than verisimilitude, if it is a hair too emphatic both in its celebration and critique of the military — or at least of certain persons within it — it is consistently diverting and sometimes educational. And its characters, and the actors who play them, even when you can make out the clockwork animating their actions, are easy to like, and even care about, as something approximating people.

Luke Mitchell plays a Marine Corps prosecutor in the CBS military legal procedural "The Code."
Luke Mitchell plays a Marine Corps prosecutor in the CBS military legal procedural "The Code." (Mark Schafer / CBS)

It takes a minute to work out who outranks whom — the audience gets occasional prompts, as the characters remind one another just who does — but all you really need to know is that Col. Glenn Turnbull sits above them all and that she is played by Dana Delany, whose TV-military career goes back to the great Vietnam War hospital drama "China Beach." She is tough, sometimes scary tough, and as hard on herself as anyone: "I am a colonel in the U.S. Marines. I can't do what people do."

It's an ensemble piece, but one in which we are most aware of prosecutor Capt. John “Abe” Abraham, played by Luke Mitchell. Tardiness is Abe’s designated character quirk, but his major long arc (not to be confused with Maj. Longarc) is his growing closeness to the widow of his best friend, murdered in the first episode.

Who else is here? Maj. Trey Ferry (Ato Essandoh) is Abe's superior officer but otherwise his partner and peer. He's working on a book about Old West black U.S. marshal Bass Reeves and trying to have a baby with his off-camera wife. Capt. Maya Dobbins (Anna Wood) is their opponent on defense; she has a brother with a mental health problem and is not (yet) being positioned as a romantic interest for Abe, which, as formally unattached hot characters they ordinarily would be.

Lt. Harper Li (Phillipa Soo), seemingly named for the author of "To Kill a Mockingbird," is the team youngster; and Warrant Officer Rami Ahmadi (Raffi Barsoumian), the series' designated social oddity. If this were a "Star Trek" spinoff (and the show's other co-creator, Craig Sweeny, did in fact work on "Star Trek: Discovery"), he would be an android or an alien. Indeed, he is an alien in the legal sense (with the good manners of an android); even though he was raised in Grand Rapids, Mich., he is not yet a citizen. "The background checks," he says, "are extensive."

Dana Delany, left, as Col. Glenn Turnbull, Phillipa Soo as Lt. Harper Li, Anna Wood as Capt. Maya Dobbin, Luke Mitchell as Capt. John "Abe" Abraham and Ato Essandoh as Maj. Trey Ferry in the CBS military legal drama "The Code."
Dana Delany, left, as Col. Glenn Turnbull, Phillipa Soo as Lt. Harper Li, Anna Wood as Capt. Maya Dobbin, Luke Mitchell as Capt. John "Abe" Abraham and Ato Essandoh as Maj. Trey Ferry in the CBS military legal drama "The Code." (Mark Schafer / CBS)

Perhaps most significant, co-creator Craig Turk was an executive producer and writer on "The Good Wife." And while it's a little unfair to call "The Code" the thinking person's "JAG," it does continue "The Good Wife's" conscious, one might even say mindful, engagement with more or less current events, hot-button issues and ethical brain teasers, along with a concern, which one would suppose unusual in the armed forces, in speaking truth to power: "There's a tradition of civil disobedience in this country,” says Col. Turnbull. “They wrote a book about it and everything."

They always punch up, never down, which rankles the powerful and puts the team more or less permanently on the verge of insubordination. They bend rules, stall for time, throw Hail Mary passes. "We're lawyers." says Abe. "We don't pursue ideals; we pursue outcomes." Except they do pursue ideals even after they've reached an outcome — Abe most of all — to get to the better, more just outcome.

There are episodes (four were available to watch) about a Marine murder of an Iraqi civilian, untreated head trauma, the limits of artificial intelligence, "stolen valor" videos in which Marines accost people who go out dressed as Marines (which is a real thing, both the videos and the dressing up), and the government undercutting its MAVNI (Military Accessions Vital to National Interest) program, leaving its volunteers’ immigration status in doubt. (Samantha Bee’s “Full Frontal” just did a segment on this.) There is compassion for the weak and none for bullies of any rank, title or class.

‘The Code’

Where: CBS

When: 9 p.m. Tuesday

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Rating: TV-14-LV (may be unsuitable for children under 14 with advisories for coarse language and violence)

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