On TV: The Closer & Raising the Bar

Movieline Score: 5
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Since TNT rebranded eight years ago, it's been hard to pass a bus stop or flip through the channels without being slapped around by the network's tag line: "We Know Drama." Sure, they also know that people will watch Law & Order reruns until the cows come home, but their homegrown efforts have shown more than a modicum of dramatic understanding. Two of those original shows return tonight: The quirky lady detective drama The Closer and the sophomore season of Steven Bochco's Raising the Bar. These shows aren't exactly escapist summer fare, but everyone needs some drama now and then.

This is the fifth season of The Closer, and after the hectic run-up to the marriage of Deputy Chief Johnson (Kyra Sedgwick) and FBI Agent Howard (Jon Tenney) at the end of the last cycle, it seems like the producers wanted to start out slow. After a quadruple homicide, Chief, her pink overcoat and her multiethnic squad of investigators have to figure out who ordered the murder while navigating the murky jurisdictional waters between the the various law enforcement entities in Los Angeles.

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If that sounds to you like every cop show ever, you're half-correct. But what differentiates The Closer is the central focus on Sedgwick's character. It's no wonder she won a Golden Globe back in 2007 (and is a perennial Emmy nominee) for a role that requires her to be in every scene delivering all the good lines. Now that her character is married with a more defined domestic space, the writers can add new insights for her to play (cat ownership comes up in the premiere), but with that thick accent and a cast of somewhat faceless men around her, all Sedgwick really has to do is show up on-set and hit her marks to receive recognition for her work.

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Now that the cops have whetted your appetite for justice, Raising the Bar follows hot on Chief Johnson's heels with a blend of judicial idealism and procedural banality, as lawyers on both sides of the law - public defender vs. district attorney - find a way to be friends despite opposing each other in the courtroom. The central figure here is Jerry Kellerman (Mark-Paul Gosselaar), Atticus Finch with slightly better hair (after the new 'do his client gives him), and a tireless crusader for his resourceless clients. At stake is whether the barber shop owner was unaware of or supported his nephew's crack business. The cases on Raising the Bar tend to have more of a gray area than most legal shows, but our sympathy is clearly on the side of the defendant. Elsewhere, Jerry's boss Rosalind Whitman (Gloria Reuben) is back in the court defending a hockey mom (ripped from the headlines!).

Jerry delivers his usual do-gooder lines ("This system crushes good people every day, and you're just letting it happen!") and his friends from the D.A.'s office do everything they can to be reasonable and just as righteous, but this show falls into abstraction way too often. As it showed us last season, this is a legal procedural where procedure matters less than telling truths about "the system" and that doesn't always make for compelling television. The characters are passionate about what they are saying, but the plot isn't enough to keep viewers participating along with the lawyers.

That might sound somewhat grim for the future prospects of Raising the Bar, but in the next episode, John Michael Higgins steps in as a much-needed strong second judge. The judicial robe isn't nearly large enough for his personality (or what he's packing underneath), but his obsession with rules and laws (the government's, Newton's) provide an excellent alternative to the politically-motivated or activist judge stereotypes usually sitting on television benches.

For a long time, my litmus test for any primetime show, not just cop/lawyer shows, was whether I would rather watch a brand new episode or flip over to TNT or USA and watch a Law & Order I had already seen. The Closer will keep you from jumping, but Raising the Bar (granted, without Higgins) might make you suspend disbelief and pretend like you haven't heard that classic Jack McCoy closing already.

The Closer: Rating (out of 10): 7

Raising the Bar: Rating (out of 10): 5



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