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Welcome once again to our annual "first look" at the broadcast networks' offerings for the 2010-2011 season. Each day we'll walk you through one of the new series set to premiere next season (or one that didn't make the cut) and go over our initial impressions after viewing the pilot. Keep in mind that a lot can change from what's being screened right now - recasting, reshooting, etc. - but we still want to give you a heads up on what you should (and shouldn't) keep on your radar in the coming months. So enough of our rambling, on with the show!
[IMPORTANT NOTE: The following is based on the original sales presentation which was screened to us privately or supplied by a third party NOT an informational, not-for-review screener provided by the network in question.]
THE DEFENDERS (CBS)
(written by Kevin Kennedy & Niels Mueller; directed by Davis Guggenheim; TRT: 43:05)
The network's description: "THE DEFENDERS stars Jim Belushi and Jerry O'Connell in a comedic drama about two colorful Las Vegas defense attorneys who go all-in when it comes to representing their clients. Nick and Pete are the local go-to guys with an eclectic client list who are still looking to hit their own jackpot. Leading the law firm of Morelli & Kaczmarek are Nick Morelli (Belushi), an earnest, hard-charging attorney who represents his clients to the best of his ability, no matter how big or small the case, and his partner, Pete Kaczmarek (O'Connell), whose passion for the law is matched only by his love of fast cars, beautiful women and expensive clothes. Joining them in their growing law practice is new associate Lisa Tyler (Jurnee Smollett), an enthusiastic young attorney looking to put her exotic dancing days behind her; and their young assistant, Sophie (Tanya Fischer), a spunky and sweet ingenue who is eager to please her bosses.
As Lady Luck shines on their legal careers, the partners have their hands full when it comes to their personal lives. While Pete is busy cruising the Vegas Strip for his latest romantic conquest, Nick is focused on repairing his fractured marriage to his estranged wife, Jessica (Gillian Vigman), while remaining present in the life of their young son. No matter the offense, Nick and Pete aim to prove that when the stakes are high they're willing to bet the house on the clients they defend in Sin City. Carol Mendelsohn, Niels Mueller and Kevin Kennedy, Joe and Harry Gantz, and Davis Guggenheim are the executive producers for CBS Television Studios."
What did they leave out? Frank Sinatra Jr. makes a cameo.
The plot in a nutshell: Today is supposed to be a big day for Las Vegas defense attorneys Pete Kaczmarek (Jerry O'Connell) and Nick Morelli (Jim Belushi). And while Pete is excited about their new billboard going up on the strip, Nick is crestfallen by the news his estranged wife Jessica (Gillian Vigman) has started seeing someone. He'll need to get his head on straight though as one of their clients, Dan Shepard (Eric Ladin), has decided to reject a plea deal that could see him out in three years. Said decision, the guys remind him, will leave him open to a 40-year sentence if he's found guilty.
Even worse, it turns out the judge (Stephen Root, always great to see) wants to go straight to trial. You see, Pete and Nick then have plenty of reason to be worried: Dan has already confessed to the crime. After four men starting beating up his brother in front of their trailer, Dan decided to go retrieve his gun and shoot at them to make them stop. And while he insists he was just defending his brother, the DA will argue that's manslaughter, plain and simple, as his actions cost one of the men their life.
It's not all doom and gloom though as the guys' newest associate, stripper-turned-lawyer Lisa Tyler (Jurnee Smollett), notices one of the witness's statements refers to another, unidentified person who wasn't mentioned in the police report. And so we begin our ride down the usual legal mechanizations as Pete and Nick attempt to remove the malice suggested by the ADA (Teddy Sears) and put the jury in Dan's shoes. Meanwhile, Pete trades barbs (and then some) with Meredith Cramer (Natalie Zea) from the DAs office and the guys' assistant, Sophie (Tanya Fischer), scrambles to find the most important thing in Vegas: tickets to see Junior.
What works: I, despite still washing my eyes out from "According to Jim," was genuinely surprised how much I liked Belushi in this. His "My Cousin Vinny"-esque style of defense is actually pretty charming as he pokes holes in the leaps and assumptions the prosecution's witnesses make. Sure, stuff like spilling his water on the medical examiner to demonstrate the victim flinching could account for why his bullet wounds came from behind is silly theatrics, but it works nonetheless. O'Connell likewise plays the womanizing risk taker with an enjoyable amount of zeal. Both give a solid heft to the proceedings that makes you care about what happens and that's all you can really ask from these types of shows. It also helps that the trial hinges on the unique quirks of the Nevada court system, something I'm sure will be frequently revisited.
What doesn't: The show does get a little heavy handed with the gambling metaphors at times (Pete: "We play the hand we've been dealt, we've done it before."; Judge: "Trial is an uncertain bet."; Pete: "How you feeling?" Nick: "Like I'm all in on a pair of 10s."; etc.) and the threats to their case often turn out to be paper tigers. Still it's done in such a good-natured way it's hard to take much issue with it, let alone distract you from the show's central drive. All in all, I'm a shocked as anyone to say this but "The Defenders" is...
The bottom line: ...one of the better new dramas this season.