Mantegna, Garner are definite pluses

Preview: The jury's still out on whether `First Monday' can make its case as good drama.

Midseason Tv

January 15, 2002|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

If he could make military justice interesting enough to create a long-running hit show despite the lack of big-name stars in JAG, you might think a series about the Supreme Court starring Joe Mantegna and James Garner would be a slam dunk for producer Don Bellisario.

Not exactly.

First Monday, a new CBS drama about life backstage at the Supreme Court, has loads of promise, but the first two episodes also have major problems in terms of tone and in translating the complicated legal issues that are the grist of the court's business into prime-time entertainment. Those are the kind of problems that can keep a show from ever finding a large enough audience to survive in the world of network television.

The most promising - or at least most interesting - aspect of the series is its central character, Justice Joseph Novelli (Mantegna). Tonight's pilot centers on his joining the Supreme Court as the new ninth justice and the swing vote on a court evenly divided between liberals and conservatives.

Viewers won't see much of it in the pilot, but by the second episode, which airs Friday in the series' regular time slot, they'll see Novelli in the context of his family and his faith. The family consists of a wife (Linda Purl) and two children. The faith is Roman Catholicism.

Religion is important in the second episode because the case the court is hearing involves a 15-year-old girl who wants an abortion against the wishes of her parents. The episode shows Novelli being lobbied from the pulpit on Sunday by his parish priest and then hearing from his adolescent daughter how nuns at her parochial school are bombarding her with anti-abortion messages.

While the episode ends with a series of anti-abortion images (a statue of Madonna and Child, for one), one of the big scenes involves Novelli dressing down his priest for using the pulpit to try to influence his vote on the court, as well as the nuns' handling of his daughter. This is not Touched By an Angel, and I have a feeling CBS and Mr. Bellisario are going to be hearing from some Catholic viewers on this one.

But that's good. That's what serious drama should do as long as it's balanced, and this is. Outside of shows featuring priests, I can't remember a network series in which the central character's religious life was given this much room to breathe, while at the same time being positioned as just one aspect of his or her identity. Mantegna has the range to make such a character believable.

That and the performance of the always-engaging Garner as Chief Justice Thomas Brankin form the upside of First Monday.

On the other hand, the series can be incredibly stereotyped, shallow and obvious as in the depiction of the politics of some of the other justices.

For example, Justice Esther Weisenberg (Camille Saviola), a dead ringer for former Clinton cabinet member Donna Shalala, is not only dogmatically liberal but wears a star of David, just in case anyone missed the label "Liberal Jew." The Clarence Thomas lookalike is a liberal rather than a conservative, but why even use lookalike casting?

As for issues, the pilot is about the death penalty for criminals under age 18, but Bellisario never quite manages to focus the debate through the case brought before the court. He tries to clarify it by having two characters watching an imaginary cable TV show called "Curveball" in which real-world talking heads, like O.J. Simpson attorney Barry Scheck, briefly summarize the opposing positions. More talking heads are not the answer in a television landscape drowning in them.

Nor are the endless arguments among Novelli's three young clerks (two liberals and a conservative). Their lives and loves - right down to one of them improbably dancing the night away in a salsa nightclub with an attorney he met after she argued a case before the court - are given entirely too much play in the two episodes available for screening. But, hey, this is network TV, and youth must be served.

In this regard, First Monday breaks its neck trying to be Upstairs, Downstairs at the Supreme Court. What the series needs to figure out is whether it wants to do salsa or be grown-up TV.

First Monday

When: Premiere shows at 9 tonight; thereafter 9 Friday nights

Where: WJZ (Channel 13)

In brief: A split decision

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