CBS’s thought process in making “The Defenders” is probably centered on the idea that everyone loves a good legal drama and no one can resist a show set in Las Vegas. So they figured, “Let’s just throw these two things together and it’ll be great.” The result was one epic nosedive of a show.
Wednesdays at 10 p.m.
Lost trying to ascertain when the plot of “The Defenders” will pick up, viewers can’t be blamed for having trouble remembering the names of the show’s two main characters, Nick Morelli and Pete Kaczmarek. Played respectively by Jim Belushi (“According to Jim”) and Jerry O’Connell (“Crossing Jordan”), Morelli and Kaczmarek are two colorful Las Vegas attorneys who supposedly “go all in when it comes to representing their clients.”
Well, Belushi and O’Connell certainly didn’t go all in when preparing for these roles. Their chemistry is at best forced most of the time. O’Connell’s comedic timing is completely off, not surprising considering he hasn’t had a stellar performance since his breakout role in “Stand by Me.” His secret sexual relationship with an attorney from another firm (whom he supposedly hates) isn’t believable enough for him to fit into the archetype of the perpetual bachelor whose steam might hold an audience.
Belushi’s portrayal of a morose Morelli proves mediocre as well. In the show, he’s separated from his wife and intent on having her followed by a private eye whose investigative work yields photos of her on the back of some guy’s motorcycle. He freaks out. This foray into his emotional side is juxtaposed with his performance in the courtroom — a sloppy rollercoaster ride that makes him appear more the maverick of the two attorneys. In the end, the tangent with his wife, which was probably intended to make him more complex, is so shallow it seems gratuitous.
The pilot at least paid some attention to cinematography and costume design. The glitz and glamour of the strip at night are well contrasted with shots of the hot and dry landscape of the desert day. Belushi’s horrendously loud tie choices complement his Vegas persona in the courtroom and allow him to deliver a few poorly written lady-luck jokes with at least a little bit of gusto. The firm’s secretary (Tanya Fischer, “Law & Order”) has the craziest, most distracting makeup and outfits, bringing new meaning to the term “business casual.”
Lisa Tyler (Jurnee Smollett, “Friday Night Lights”), a new addition to the firm, adds a strong female element. However, allegations that she stripped her way through law school fail to be fully investigated and instead seem like an unimportant detail.
We spend so much time dealing with all these quirky characters in the pilot that we barely notice the legal drama. The show’s first case is a murder in which a young man who had already landed a plea bargain of three years of jail time for involuntary manslaughter decides to throw caution to the wind and prove his innocence.
The whole truth and nothing but the truth — the legal jargon incorporated in the court scenes is either so dumbed down it’s an insult to the legal profession, or so inaccessible to the audience that you have to zone out the words to keep your head in the plotline.
Minutes before the decision from the jury, Morelli and Kaczmarek grab a drink. “I feel like I’m going all in on a pair of tens,” Morelli says, ruefully hanging his head over the bar.
We of course can predict that they are going to win the case, but still have to suffer through Morelli’s speech to the jury featuring one incredibly painful and seemingly everlasting shot of him leaning on the banister (making him uncomfortably close to the jury and the camera itself).
All this discomfort aside, it’s clear that CBS’s gamble just didn’t pay off. “The Defenders” is not sexy, not funny and not smart. Verdict: Skip it.