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TV Tonight: Outlaw

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Outlaw, starring Jimmy Smits, is not a comedy, though it’s from Conan O’Brien’s production company. (Irony alert: the series is on NBC.) In fact, the series—renegade, rule-breaking judge quits the bench and becomes renegade, rule-breaking lawyer—sounds like it could be a show O’Brien would make as a parody. It’s not that either, though it comes unintentionally close.

Outlaw—sneak-peeking tonight before moving to Fridays—starts in a direction of implausibility and keeps on going. The premise: Cyrus Garza (Jimmy Smits) is the most conservative justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, and the son of a famous and passionate liberal attorney. After his father dies in an accident, Garza re-examines his life and decides to embrace his father’s beliefs. He further decides that the legal system he works in is flawed, in such a way that he cannot do any good as a Supreme Court justice [!]. So he quits the bench and decides to become a freelance lawyer, traveling and taking on highly controversial cases.

On the face of it, that premise is not a terrible one for a TV show. In fact, sticking to just one of those premises (lawyer who use to be a SCOTUS judge, lawyer with a gambling problem, lawyer who’s questioning his life-long beliefs) would probably have been an even better premise for a TV show. But for it to work, Garza’s various decisions have to make sense in the context of being an believable person with plausible motivations for making such radical changes in his life. Instead, every action Garza takes is mainly explicable because he is a character on a TV show who must set up its premise.

It’s a stretch, for instance, that he would do a 180 on his bedrock political and legal beliefs simply because his father suddenly died. But OK: let’s take that as a given—let’s say it moves him to become some sort of liberal out of guilt, or filial obligation, or something. Mightn’t you think that Garza would want to honor his father’s legal beliefs by, say, putting them into action on the U.S. Supreme Court? Of course, there’s another rationale given for his leaving the court, but the most believable one is: otherwise, there wouldn’t be a show. (Well, there would. But Sally Field already made it and it got canceled.)

There’s a show all right, but it’s a conflicted, and sometimes plain silly, mess of a show. It wants to have fun with the high life that the outspoken “playboy” Garza lives, and it wants to have a high-minded take on the legal buzz-issues of the day. (Episode 2 is already taking a swing at Arizona’s immigration-enforcement law.) Which again, could work with better writing and a more grounded characterization, but instead the show just lurches between tones, and the lead performance, between Smits having a lark as a rascally rebel and Smits in high-dudgeon mode.

It might be interesting to see how the politics of Outlaw are read by the audience. On the one hand, you could say it’s a liberal fantasy (basically, wouldn’t it be nice if a Roberts or Alito or another long-lived conservative judge saw the light and left the bench?). You could make the case that it endorses a conservative view of jurisprudence, as Garza basically decides that a SCOTUS justice does not have the authority to enact the kind of liberal principles he’s decided to espouse. Or you could see it as a nonpartisan indictment of, I don’t know, the ineffectiveness of “the system,” whatever that is—which allows Outlaw to end up in the each-side-has-a-point safe corner that broadcast “issues” dramas like this generally retreat to.

I’m just going to render summary judgment, though, and call it silly.