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On new drama, ‘Justice’ swiftly served

But legal show's suspense derives more from style than content
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Fox lights a rocket and sends it screeching into the sky with tonight’s premiere of “Justice,” a dazzling and gripping crime drama from executive producer Jerry Bruckheimer, the astute showman who brought “CSI” to CBS.

Whether “Justice” will be the foundation for a dynasty, as “CSI” has been, is doubtful—but also irrelevant. Once “Justice” has been meted out, you’re definitely under the impression you’ve seen something—or maybe seen something go by, like a high-speed train whose individual cars become a blur. But they sure did look pretty.

“Justice” is one of those rare shows that might move faster than the commercials that interrupt it. It’s edited as tightly as a fist and hits with that kind of impact; there’s a snap for every crackle and pop.

In the premiere, the suspense derives more from style than from content. The drama about the exploits of a high-powered, and apparently high-priced, Los Angeles legal team is full of gimmicks, kinetic trickery and whiplash transitions.

This show and others like it—the crash-bang-boom school of breakneck storytelling—makes the old bromide “It’s all done with mirrors” obsolete. Now it’s all done with computers, and from the Bruckheimer factory, it’s usually done well.

Even in the digital age, though, one likes to think that viewers care about something other than speed and fireworks. “Justice” does not promote deep involvement, which is not to say it is not affecting, in its Cirque du Soleil way.

The show even has a point of view: that the justice system is under assault from the demands of insatiable mass media, and that big-time crimes routinely are being turned into entertainment by TV exploitation. And how better to address the issue than by turning make-believe big-time crimes into entertainment? It’s explicit entertainment, too. When we hear the victim had five gashes in her head, we know we’ll see all five of them (probably more than once each).

After a grabber opening sequence that shows a body bobbing in a bloody-watered swimming pool, we meet the dynamic foursome that make up Trott, Nicholson, Tuller & Graves, a law firm that would seem affordable only by the richest of the really rich. Fortunately for the storytellers, Southern California has plenty of those.

The lawyer that juries don't like
Trott is Ron Trott, played by series star Victor Garber, a versatile actor who once portrayed Liberace in a TV movie but here is a thundering, demanding taskmaster, the biggest brain in the outfit who might also be called the biggest boor.

Trott doesn’t actually try the cases in court because, says a colleague, “a little of Ron goes a long way.” Garber has to manage the neat trick of playing an obnoxious mastermind who’s not so obnoxious that he abuses viewers. Sometimes Garber goes so far over the top that you can’t even see the top anymore, but nobody in the cast is exactly playing it for subtlety. He makes a striking figure, too, striding out of the courthouse—and heading straight for the gang of cameras, microphones and reporters waiting there.

Tom Nicholson (Kerr Smith) charms juries with his clean-cut good looks. Alden Tuller (beautifully blue-eyed Rebecca Mader) works largely behind the scenes to calculate odds and psychoanalyze juries, witnesses and anybody else involved. Luther Graves (Eamonn Walker) is a tough but sensitive pro who crossed over years earlier from the prosecution side to the ranks of the defenders.

The prosecutors, as portrayed in the pilot, are a ruthless lot, hiding evidence and attempting—as blatantly as the law firm does—to manipulate the media and try the case in public before it gets to the jury. These are not the blunderers of the O.J. Simpson case but more the seemingly vindictive zealots of the Michael Jackson case. Either way, it’s hard to imagine this fictitious television program giving L.A. law enforcement a more negative image than it already has.

When the man suspected of killing his wife with a golf club tells Trott that those in the district attorney’s office gave him certain assurances if he turns himself in, Trott says: “He lied, Kevin. They do that.”

Representing the media at their worst is Katherine La Nasa as Suzanne Fulcrum, host of a nightly law-and-order show. She’s clearly patterned after that fire-breathing dragon, the ironically surnamed Nancy Grace. Trott pastes on his happy face and makes himself conspicuously available to her, and to her viewers. (She’s one heaping helping of snakes-on-a-plane all by herself, she is.)

Is Fulcrum on the level? Why, we wouldn’t dream of asking.

“Justice” has one more built-in gimmick. At the end of each show, we return to the scene of the crime and see, as Fox puts it, “what no lawyer can ever see: what really happened.” It is conceivable that—even on tonight’s premiere—the law firm could have channeled all its considerable resources into defending a guilty party.

The revelation scene in tonight’s episode seems a bit too glib, although it comes as a relief considering where a viewer’s sympathies are likely to lie. And as stylishly modern as “Justice” might be, it includes a courtroom scene of a prosecutor slamming a golf club down on an imaginary victim’s head that loudly echoes Raymond Burr using an oar for the same purpose in the 1951 movie “A Place in the Sun.”

Some crime-drama traditions, it appears, must be upheld, even when all the trappings have been digitized and modernized. “Justice,” to put it in culinary terms, is a banquet of gourmet fast food, all of it delicious and addictive—even if it could probably never pass for actual nourishment.