Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Courtroom Drama

Another Fox show debut, another Pop Culture America review.

"Canterbury's Law" (pilot episode)

Tune in Fox news and wait for ten minutes and you're sure to see a case just like the one depicted in Monday's premier of "Canterbury's Law." A child is kidnapped or murdered (or both). The family grieves on camera. The neighborhood search continues, even if it is only for a body. Someone says, "We're not giving up hope." Someone else says, "We just want closure." Not to downplay the tragedy, but there's no denying that it has all become theater, as structured and codified and ritualistic as a passion play or kabuki.

Into that drama (and back onto regular network series TV) steps Julianna Margulies as Liz Canterbury, a pedal-to-the-metal defense attorney who recognizes -- and revels in -- the fact that the courtroom where she does her job has turned into a circus tent. "Any lawyer who dodges a soundbite should be disbarred," she sniffs when an associate recommends avoiding the press. She micromanages hair and makeup and wardrobe, and is not above staging legally shady sideshows for the benefit of her client, and her real audience, the jury.

"Canterbury's Law" follows the recent television pattern of shows like "House" and "Shark" by providing Margulies with a true star turn. Appropriately for her flamboyant character, she is 100% at center stage here, her supporting cast existing almost entirely for her to play off of, berate, manipulate. And Margulies is easily up to the challenge, commanding the small screen with understated charisma. She doesn't have to yell and scream to get your attention.

Of the other cast members on this pilot episode, she gets the most spark from Boris McGiver as Scott Jasper, the dead boy's father and her prime suspect. After being told she won't be able to question him on the stand, Liz encounters him in a hallway and rattles off a list of injuries suffered by the boy, flat out accusing him of beating his son. When he rises to the bait, she saunters away, allowing herself a wry little smile; her act was a success. Later they will face off again and the result will be violent and shocking.

For the second time in a week, Fox premiers a new show with a pilot directed by an Oscar nominee. Earlier, it was the disappointing "New Amsterdam," with Lasse Hallstrom at the helm. For "Canterbury's Law," Mike Figgis takes the director's chair; his nomination came for 1995's Leaving Las Vegas. For this pilot, his strategy is twofold; he emphasizes intensity with lots of handheld, tight shots outside the court, while filming the courtroom scenes with more obvious directorial flair: circling tracking shots, the occasional whip-pan, and the like.

Of the regulars besides Margulies, no one really jumps to the forefront in the first episode. Judging by the preview for next week's show, Aidan Quinn as Liz's husband Matt will get a bit more screen time. The pilot sets up a subplot about how Matt and Liz lost a child of their own, and that will undoubtedly be explored down the line.

Figgis and Margulies have given "Canterbury's Law" a good opening statement. We'll see how the case proceeds.

3 1/2 stars.

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