Tuned In

House, the Trial-Sized Versions

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There’s been a lot written about the profusion of serial shows this fall, which you could call the Lost or Grey’s Anatomy effect on TV. There’s been another, smaller effect, too: the House effect, in which networks have decided that a central, nasty or irascible character means ratings ka-ching! There are two dramas on the fall schedule that look to be the direct result of someone yelling into a speakerphone, "Get me House, with a lawyer!"

The second and worse of the two debuts tonight. In Shark (CBS, 10 p.m. E.T.), James Woods plays Sebastian Stark, a high-priced defense attorney who’s pushy, obnoxious–boy, does the guy have range or what!–and guilty. Going through a mid-career crisis, he realizes what all good TV watchers are supposed to know: that being a defense attorney is not an essential part of the adversarial justice system but an evil, bloodsucking profession that involves helping bad, bad people escape justice. He decides to become a prosecutor, bringing his resources, power and knowledge of sleazy defense tactics to the other team. He also brings his cutthroat, badgering personality, which he uses to harass his team of lawyers to excellence. The problem is, where Hugh Laurie’s Gregory House is a hilarious character study, Stark–while played with ebullient aggression by Woods–is just another tool in a suit, and neither the characters, the stories nor the writing rise near House’s level.

The first, and largely overlooked, of the two shows was a surprise to me: Justice (Fox, Wednesdays, 9 p.m. E.T.). I didn’t expect anything new from  Jerry Bruckheimer’s millionth network procedural, even if this one took place in a courtroom, and in one sense the show doesn’t disappoint. It uses those trademark slick Bruckheimer effects to illustrate matters of legal procedure–for instance, having a lawyer describe an ideal juror, as an extra walking down a street morphs bit by bit into the person being described. But the important differences with Shark are setting–a high-priced defense (hiss!) firm–and character. As Ron Trott, a media-hogging, Robert Shapiro-like defense attorney, Victor Garber is a delight. Preening before the cable-news cameras, barking at his underlings, casually bending the ethical line until it cries Uncle, Trott is unashamedly proud that, with enough money, time and mock-jury sessions, his firm could get Judas off.

Justice’s legal cases are not especially shocking or original, and the supporting characters are empty suits. But it’s fascinating to watch for its style — it skips from crime to strategy to media circus to verdict with the alacrity of a Broadway musical–and, simply, for what it’s doing: cheerfully selling America, using the flashy visuals of the country’s most successful TV producer, on the idea that justice goes to the highest bidder. Justice is either the most radical new show on TV or the most cynical. On that, the jury’s still out.