Simon Baker, The Guardian
Credit: The Guardian: Michael Yarish

The highest-rated new series of the season, The Guardian is also one of the most peculiar, unpredictable successes to come along in a while. It’s the tale of a corporate lawyer who, having dabbled in drugs and been busted, must, as the start of every episode informs us, do ”1,500 hours of community service as a child advocate.” ”The Guardian” could be — indeed, by many critics, has been — dismissed as an excuse for a large segment of America to spend 60 minutes a week gazing at the battered good looks of star Simon Baker. (This is why most TV critics can’t predict hits: We tend to think there’s something wrong with watching a show simply because its lead actor looks hot.)

Baker has the sort of slightly dented nose, wuffly hair, and wounded gaze that can form prime, grade-B sex-symbol material. He’s also a native Australian whose attempted American accent veers into his speech patterns at unpredictable moments. This is a flaw — he’s playing a guy from Pittsburgh, for Pete’s sake — but one that actually works in his favor; it gives his line reading of a banal sentence such as ”This took 39 minutes; can you mark me for an hour?” unusual emphasis, and the suggestion of raffish aloofness. In a season whose other breakout male pinup item, ”Smallville”’s Tom Welling, is so callow he looks like he’s constantly about to burst into tears, Baker, by contrast, seems the sort of wiry but well-muscled bloke who’d punch you in the nose if you refused him a 12th beer. Put a guy like this in a dark business suit and shuttle him between a posh Pittsburgh law office run by his daddy (the great Dabney Coleman, reining in his temper by frequently pressing his fingers to his lips) and a run-down ”Children’s Legal Services” unit overseen by Alan Rosenberg (veteran of such Steven Bochco shows as ”L.A. Law and Civil Wars”; a.k.a. the Lucky SOB Married to ”CSI”’s Marg Helgenberger), and you don’t just have a drama — you’ve got a dandy schizophrenic potboiler.

Series creator David Hollander (who last year botched a great concept with ”Rated X,” his movie about the San Francisco porn kings, the Mitchell brothers) is also the show’s primary writer. The only good thing about ”Rated X” was the fact that Hollander was unafraid to make his characters despicable, and in ”The Guardian,” he never passes up an opportunity to render Baker’s character, Nick Fallin, as a selfish heel. In weekly television, this is nearly unheard of; it’s commonly believed that your central character must be likable. Instead, any random episode of ”The Guardian” consists of a succession of scenes in which Nick looks increasingly put out at having to lower himself to talk to indigent children, welfare recipients, and the very sort of drug dealers he used to visit before getting nabbed.

The show is structured so that Nick is always involved in a heart-tugger subplot at the children’s center, which in turn makes him late for his billable hours in the gleaming-chrome offices of Dad’s law firm. (To make sure you get the point, Hollander has Nick do his pro bono work out of a janitor’s supply closet — he grimaces when he hangs his black suit jacket on a water-heater knob.) The idea is to humble Nick; yet the best thing about ”The Guardian” is that Nick remains a stone-cold shark. He deploys all the skills he’s learned in corporate law to cut the best deals for his lowly children’s-aid clients, and then goes back to symbolically slash the throats of the fat cats his firm serves up. In other words, ”The Guardian” is about a good guy who behaves like a bad guy: an ideal of both dramatic worlds. What ”The Guardian” lacks is any sort of memorable dialogue. Hollander is the anti?Aaron Sorkin; he either cannot or will not write an exchange with spark or rhythm. Rosenberg’s role consists of him entering a scene, barking, ”We do not handle criminal cases!” at Nick, and exiting; he doesn’t exist as a human with whom Nick might engage in debate.

”The Guardian” is all about surface pleasures: the crooked smile on Baker’s honest face; the way a pro like Coleman looks at Baker with a mixture of affection and bemusement. It’s the way, every week, millions of people look at the show itself.

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