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'The Defenders' premiere: Go all in or fold?

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Image Credit: Robert Voets/CBSI’ll admit it now: I have a soft spot for Jerry O’Connell. I met him once at a press event for his 2001 movie Tomcats, and he signed a box containing a promotional pair of boxers “Keep puttin’ em behind bars” for my lawyer sister, who was then with the D.A.’s office. Though I can’t recall the specifics, I remember that he also entertained a handful of strangers with a story about a young woman who’d just shot him down. He’s not suave like a Clooney, but he’s effortlessly charming in his own way. It’s something that works well for him in CBS’ new legal The Defenders, which centers on two Las Vegas defense attorneys who care more about their clients than you’d expect them to: Jim Belushi’s Nick Morelli, a separated father who isn’t afraid to roll the dice on strategy, and O’Connell’s Pete Kaczmarek, a playboy with expensive taste in clothes and cars who’s sleeping with a woman in the D.A.’s office (Justified‘s Natalie Zea, in a recurring role) even though they despise one another.

My initial reaction to last night’s premiere was that the show is enjoyable but not essential (and Peter and Nick were way too excited to see Frank Sinatra Jr. in concert). It’s not like we have a shortage of legal dramas on TV, or this has David E. Kelley-level writing. But the more I think about it, the more interesting it gets. The Vegas setting should allow for some sexy/off-the-wall cases (they’ve got a fair number of adult film star clients, apparently). And they’ve established that prosecutors in Sin City like to go for harsh sentences, which means we should be seeing a lot of bold moves from Nick and Pete, as we did last night. The first case was a young man who meant to scare away four guys beating his brother with a warning shot, but instead, killed one of them. Their client passed on a deal that could’ve had him out in three years and went to trial. Nick needed to prove that the man didn’t intend to shoot anyone, and he “accidentally” spilled his water on the expert witness to give the jury a visual: someone charging you can end up getting shot in the back if he flinched when he saw the gun coming. The judge (guest star Stephen Root) initially refused to instruct the jury about involuntary manslaughter. When they came back with a question asking what the charge was if they thought he did it but didn’t mean to, he was going to have to give them that option — unless Nick pissed him off so badly he refused again out of spite. Big gamble, but Nick read the jury correctly: That question said they wouldn’t convict on the charges they were given — first-degree murder, second-degree murder, or voluntary manslaughter. When the verdict was read, I cared.

If you saw The Defenders, what’s your verdict? Will you watch again to see how Pete compares with Nick in court? How soon their new hire, Lisa Tyler (Jurnee Smollett), is forced to revisit her days stripping to put herself through law school to get information for a case? Will the writers can make good use of Zea?

To find out how The Defenders did in the ratings, check out Lynette Rice’s ratings report in Hollywood Insider.