Storyline recidivism is hardly appealing even with Sally Field

Preview: What goes around, comes around as yet another TV drama features a new member of the Supreme Court.

March 26, 2002|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

The most striking thing about The Court, ABC's new legal drama starring Sally Field, is how much it resembles First Monday, a CBS midseason legal drama starring Joe Mantegna and James Garner.

The Court, which arrives tonight as First Monday slinks toward cancellation, centers on a new associate justice joining the Supreme Court and finding herself as the swing vote in a court generally divided in a 4-4 split between conservatives and liberals. Instead of a male justice who is identified as Catholic and moderate (Mantegna) as the ninth member of the court, here we have a female justice who is identified as Catholic and moderate (Field) in that role. Who says there are no new ideas in Hollywood?

And just as the Supreme Court in First Monday is led by a crusty, no-nonsense chief justice from the south (James Garner), so, too, is this one with Pat Hingle playing Chief Justice Townsend. Both also feature an upstairs-downstairs structure with lots of emphasis on the clerks who work for these justices in an attempt to win younger viewers. You have to wonder which big-name producer came up with the idea first: John Wells (ER), the executive producer of The Court, or Don Bellisario (JAG), the executive producer of First Monday.

Ultimately, who borrowed from whom or denies doing so isn't as important as the fact that there doesn't appear to be enough dramatic firepower in the premise for one successful series, let alone two. Despite all the big-name talent in front and behind the camera, as well as the polished look of both productions, neither series has the energy or passion to make you care about its world or the characters in it.

The main character in The Court, Kate Nolan (Field), is the governor of Ohio when she gets the call to join the court. Much of tonight's pilot is filled with the business of backstage Washington: Nolan meeting with the president's advisers, and then the president's advisers meeting among themselves to try to manage her and her Senate confirmation hearings.

The idea we are supposed to come away with from this backstage view is that despite all the cynicism around her, Nolan is a pragmatic but mostly straight-talking public servant of some principle. The possibility of a political insider rising above the usual Washington cynicism is a story line Wells appears to have learned well from his partner in The West Wing, Aaron Sorkin, the creative half of that producing team.

The idea of better angels calling Nolan's name is reinforced during the hour by shots of her walking up the great steps of the Supreme Court, as well as her sitting alone at night in the darkened courtroom as if letting its history seep into her being. While there is some drama in wondering whether she will answer the call, such moments are mainly the stuff of hackneyed TV story telling trying to use our national monuments to exploit a heightened sense of shared American identity in the wake of Sept. 11.

The one dramatic element that separates The Court from First Monday involves an ambitious television reporter (Craig Berko) and his production assistant (Christina Henricks) digging through Nolan's past in Ohio. In addition to what they might find out about the newest member of the Supreme Court, this narrative also gives the producers the chance to take viewers backstage in the media world. This is more of Wells' trying to reproduce The West Wing alchemy of Sorkin and failing to do so.

As for Field's performance, there is absolutely nothing wrong with it. There is also nothing very exciting about it, either. Yes, she's an outstanding actor, but television is filled with outstanding actors doing solid work in series that never catch fire -- like Mantegna in First Monday.

Premiere

What: The Court

When: Tonight at 10

Where: WMAR (Channel 2)

In brief: Backstage at the Supreme Court without much drama.

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