June 11, 2004 at 04:00 AM EDT

The Jury

TV Show
Current Status
In Season
Billie Burke, Anna Friel, Shalom Harlow, Jeff Hephner, Barry Levinson, Trini Alvarado, Adam Busch, Tom Noonan
We gave it a B

The Jury is ”12 Angry Men” meets ”Law & Order,” with a heaping dose of ”Rashomon” for good measure — and boy, does the premise intrigue. Each week a new group of dutiful Manhattan denizens debate a criminal case, and as the jurors hector each other, we see pieces of the trial, glimpses of the crime, and we sift through the testimony and tall tales with them. At the end, the jury delivers its verdict, and the truth is revealed in flashbacks.

But so far the jazzy gimmick outdazzles the show, which is surprising given its pedigree: Barry Levinson, who wrote and directed the banter-rich classic ”Diner,” and Tom Fontana, who with Levinson masterminded the much-loved ”Oz” and ”Homicide: Life on the Street.” Part of ”The Jury”’s problem is pure script sloppiness, which can (and should) be ironed out. A juror asks her peers which one of them ordered deodorant spray for the courthouse bathroom, and, when no one fesses up, pronounces it a mystery. ”We’ve got a bigger mystery than that to solve,” spouts her neighbor. ”The murder of Craig Sheridan!” And so far the juries tend to lay out the cases in exposition-heavy exchanges — it’s like watching a bad ’50s sci-fi movie and enduring the scientist hero’s pedantic explanation of ”atomic energy.”

Better, breezier moments come whenever Brit import Anna Friel is on screen as defense attorney Megan Delaney. The actress (who starred in Levinson’s stinker ”An Everlasting Piece”) exudes such exasperated warmth, she can blurt lines like ”Lord save me from crying mothers!” in the wake of a grieving mom’s testimony and not sound remotely bitch-lawyer callous. Friel’s three fellow lawyers are equally well cast: Billy Burke (so elegantly work-worn you can almost smell the stale gourmet coffee on his breath), Jeff Hephner (so together you can almost smell his shoe polish), and Shalom Harlow (so far a cipher, but, being a supermodel-turned-thespian, she probably smells very nice).

Burke and Hephner play fair-minded prosecutors to Friel’s casually valiant legal-aid attorney, and they all seem eager to do good. ”The Jury” is, in fact, exhaustingly evenhanded. Prosecution and defense, victim and perpetrator, guilt and innocence — all have equal weight. It grows bland pretty fast. The show needs a villain, or at least a few lawyers with some personality cracks: a little bitterness; a whiff of opportunism; some desperately misguided ambition. As for the rest of the cast, Levinson, doing double duty as presiding judge Horatio Hawthorne (no relation to Hornblower), makes his stern-dad persona twinkle so nicely, we’ll almost pardon him for giving the world ”Sphere.” But the preciously eccentric bailiff (”Buffy the Vampire Slayer”’s Adam Busch) comes across less like an actual character than a guy in a glib cell-phone commercial. More peeving is that ever-present, unnamed troupe member, Mr. Shaky Cam, reliving his ”Homicide” glory days with a drunk’s-eye view of the proceedings. (Please, Barry, send him into early retirement.)

Even if many of the characters never flesh out, ”The Jury” is worth examining for the cases: A boy is charged with shooting a neighbor while partying with two friends; a lovesick teen either murdered his girlfriend or survived a suicide pact gone bad; two gangbangers are on trial for the murder of a neighborhood scold. In addition, the juries have been stacked with great you-know-the-face actors: Trini Alvarado (”Little Women”’s Meg) as a woman who frets over sentencing that gun-toting boy as an adult; Tom Noonan (”Manhunter”’s serial killer) as a cocksure guy who’s convinced the teen Romeo is a killer. The jurors zigzag through race issues (a woman chides Alvarado for favoring the boy because they’re both Latino) and evidence debates (why would a girl committing suicide hold the gun six inches from her head?) — and that’s when the show really hums. Those complicated, uneasy moments make it different from the 12,000 legal dramas before — and remind us who’s in charge of this ”Jury.”

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