TV Review: 'Canterbury's Law'

After mastering the mixture of character drama and procedural hijinx on shows like "House" and "Bones," FOX has fallen into a bit of a rut. The fall saw the speedy failure of "K-Ville," a drama that wasted fantastic location work and a solid cast in a morass of police banality. The jury's still out on "New Amsterdam," in which a potentially fascinating immortal lead is stuck doing by-the-numbers detective work. Monday (March 10) sees the premiere of "Canterbury's Law," in which a complicated and tortured attorney plies her trade in courtroom sequences that won't ring true even to viewers who know nothing of the law (much less previous network legal shows).

Julianna Margulies plays Elizabeth Canterbury, a brash and savvy defense attorney willing to do whatever it takes to help her clients walk. If that requires jury tampering, suborning perjury or the sort of theatrics that would lead to copious contempt-of-court citations in the real world, then so be it. Canterbury also drinks too much, cheats on her long-suffering law professor husband (Aidan Quinn) and treats her underlings like trash. Like Dr. House, Canterbury has been assigned (by the series creators) a trio of glorified interns with law degrees, including the black guy with attitude (Keith Robinson) and the sensitive white girl with perfect cheekbones (Trieste Kelly Dunn, whose similarities to Jennifer Morrison become even more obvious when she pulls her hair back). Ben Shenkman's Russell, a former prosecutor, is the only break from the "House" formula and through two episodes, he's also the only underling to exhibit any tangible skills.

Typically, when a network sends critics additional episodes for review beyond the pilot, the point is to show how the series has grown or mutated since that first episode. With "Canterbury's Law," FOX sent out a second episode from deep in the season that's almost identical to the pilot in its structure. Each episode's central case revolves around parents mourning their young child (which ties into Canterbury's particular pathology in all-too-obvious ways). Each episode features a supposedly grieving parent attacking somebody in a courtroom hallway and each episode featured a well-coached witness for the prosecution going ballistic on the stand under the artful cross examination of our hero. Both cases and their twists could have appeared on "The Practice" a decade ago or "L.A. Law" a decade before that and neither case does anything to justify the Providence, Rhode Island, location.

Directed by feature director Mike Figgis, the pilot establishes a visual style that's more grungy than gritty. The occasional jump cuts and questionable focus are meant to imply realism, but they just make "Canterbury's Law" look like more of a knock-off of an FX series like "Damages" or, more likely, "Rescue Me," since they share producers. Scene-to-scene transitions are accompanied by a guitar-driven rock score meant to show off how edgy our morally ambiguous hero is.

There's no doubt that Margulies is a commanding enough screen presence to carry off this sort of cable-ready leading lady, but all she's given to play are shades of discomfort and misery. All of the main actors echo Margulies' furrowed-brow intensity and coupled with the show's murky look, "Canterbury's Law" becomes tonally monotonous very quickly. As the recurring rival prosecutor, Terry Kinney doesn't exactly provide levity, but his character has been sketched as such a broad villain that he's fun to watch. I also liked Quinn as the main character's estranged husband, adding a level of humanity to a role played with an icier chill by Linus Roache in the original pilot.

With better cases and a lighter touch, "Canterbury's Law" probably could have performed solidly on TNT, packaged with "Saving Grace" or "The Closer." In its current condition, though, it's both an unpleasant show to watch and a really bad match for everything else on FOX's schedule. It's particularly comical that a show that tries so hard to be unsympathetic and dark is being put forward as an 8 p.m. offering on Monday nights, not that the time period would have made any difference in its quality.

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