We gave it a C
With the arrival of Eddie Dodd (ABC, Tuesdays, 10-11 p.m.) and The Antagonists (CBS, March 26, 9:30-11 p.m.; Thursdays, 9-10 p.m., thereafter), as well as the return of Shannon’s Deal (NBC, Saturday, March 23, 10-11 p.m.), lawyer shows have become TV drama’s most pervasive genre. Think about it: From the folksy foxiness of Matlock to the canny clotheshorses of L.A. Law, from the callow assistant DAs of Equal Justice to the just-the-facts-ma’am brusqueness of Law & Order, from the hoarse histrionics of Fox’s Against the Law to the weightiness of NBC’s Perry Mason TV movies, lawyers are the professionals who obsess us most consistently.
What Eddie Dodd and Jack Shannon have in common is that they’re not well-established corporate sharks; they’re both frazzled, lone-wolf heroes who use the law as an extension of their personal codes of honor. The Antagonists mixes up law-show styles by featuring a no-nonsense prosecutor (All My Children‘s Lauren Holly) and a flamboyant attorney (Pulaski‘s David Andrews) who oppose each other in court but strike up a love-hate romance outside the courtroom.
Eddie Dodd is based on the 1989 film True Believer, in which James Woods played a lawyer and former ’60s radical who was bummed out by the Me Decade; Robert Downey Jr. was his yuppie disciple. For TV, the characters have been altered significantly. For one thing, as Dodd, Treat Williams (Prince of the City) does without the ponytail that Woods wore like a frizzy badge of authenticity.
More than appearances have changed, though. Williams’ Eddie is also a far less alienated character: He’s cynical about the efficacy of The System, to be sure, but he’s also a player; unlike Woods in the movie, Williams doesn’t feel like an immoral sellout when he cuts a deal to spring a client. Then, too, Robert Downey Jr. has been replaced by Corey Parker, perhaps best known as sweet, googly-eyed Lee on thirtysomething. Parker is an instant improvement over the dour Downey, but he’s also too much of a puppy-dog sidekick.
In the movie, Eddie Dodd’s left-wing politics and courtroom grandstanding were supposed to remind you of William Kunstler’s dramatic approach to the law; on TV, those politics have been removed, presumably because they might alienate potential viewers. But the politics haven’t been replaced with anything else — the result is an overblown show full of hot air.
Williams’ Eddie and Parker’s Roger conduct all-too-predictable legal-beagle colloquies, and when Eddie talks, he yells: ”We can’t argue the law, Roger,” Dodd bellowed in the series’ debut, ”we have to argue right and wrong!” In the courtroom, our Eddie barks ”Objection!” louder than any TV lawyer in history. You have to go all the way back to the source of the big-mouthed-impassioned-lawyer drama — Al Pacino in 1979’s feature film …And Justice for All — to find a mouthpiece as bellicose as Eddie Dodd.
Jack Shannon, on the other hand, is the comparatively soft-spoken lawyer created by filmmaker-novelist-actor John Sayles (Matewan, Eight Men Out). Shannon’s Deal had a short, critically acclaimed run last year. Sayles’ Shannon is a man haunted by his past — as the March 23 opening credits remind us, he used to work for a major law firm but was a compulsive gambler. He lost his job; his wife and daughter left him. These days, Shannon operates more like a Raymond Chandler-era private eye than a modern lawyer: After kicking his habit, he opened up a dingy little office, hired a tough, smart secretary (Elizabeth Peña), and now takes whatever clients walk in the door. To emphasize the show’s hard-boiled cool, Wynton Marsalis provides some post-bop trumpet wailing on the soundtrack.
Shannon’s Deal is great on atmosphere, and in Jamey Sheridan the show has a charmingly raffish hero. But as was true of Shannon in its first run, the show’s plots tend to meander annoyingly, and Sheridan’s lines aren’t as snappy as the way he delivers them. This Saturday’s episode, for example, concerns Shannon’s attempt to get some child-support money out of the ex-husband of a woman Shannon is dating. The deadbeat (Darrell Larsen) is a high-stakes gambler, and you just know from the first time Shannon meets him that our hero will himself be tempted to gamble again, that he’ll momentarily succumb and lose his shirt and then pull himself together to get the best of this fellow.
One reason many people are looking forward to Shannon‘s second run is that Sayles is reported to have hired writers of the caliber of Joan Tewkesbury (Nashville) and Kit Carson (Paris, Texas) to write scripts for him; let’s hope they’re a lot better than the one Eugene Corr (Desert Bloom) handed in here. Right now, Shannon’s Deal remains an intriguing show with first-rate acting by Sheridan and Peña, but they could use some behind-the-scenes help.
As for The Antagonists, well, on the basis of its 90-minute pilot, it’s a thin gloss on Moonlighting, featuring lots of coy romantic banter between stars Andrews and Holly. Andrews, in fact, could be Jack Shannon in his earlier career as a high-powered lawyer — Andrews’ character, Jack Scarlett, is cocky and combative, but also tiresomely macho, testing his law clerks by tossing them baseballs and watching how well they catch.
Holly plays Kate Ward with gleaming intelligence, and she often puts a wry spin on her lines, but she too is a cartoon of glamorousness: Virtually every man we see comes on to her; she should be in court prosecuting her colleagues for sexual harassment.
This is the sort of self-righteous show in which Jack tells Kate, ”Always remember, Katie, there’s no such thing as justice.” A bit later, Kate follows Jack into the men’s room to argue a point, and we’re supposed to think this is cute and daring. It’s not; The Antagonists is boring and suggests that TV may have at least one lawyer show too many.
Shannon’s Deal: B Eddie Dodd: C The Antagonists: C-