Mark-Paul Gosselaar

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif — "Raising the Bar" would be a groundbreaking legal drama ... if this was 1986.

But it's 2008, and this new show from producer Steven Bochco looks like a lot of shows that have gone before. A lot of his shows that have gone before.

Including "L.A. Law," which premiered way back in 1986.

It's not that "Raising the Bar" is a bad show. It's a decent legal drama. It's just that the minute it begins, it feels like it's been on before.

Even the basis for this show — it's built around the public defender's office — has been done before. By Bochco, for that matter, in his failed 2001-02 series "Philly."

Bochco, whose dozens of credits include legal/police shows such as "Hill Street Blues," "Civil Wars," "L.A. Law," "Murder One," "Brooklyn South," "Philly" and "NYPD Blue," insisted that he's on guard against repeating things from previous series.

(He co-created "Raising the Bar" — which premieres Monday at 8 and 11 p.m. on TNT and repeats Tuesday at 9 p.m. on both TNT and TBS — with David Feige.)

"You do have to pay attention to that," he said. "Over the course of 30-plus years, having told hundreds and hundreds of stories, you do have to be very careful.

"And I think David will attest to the fact that, in our story meetings over the course of this year, I've said many more than one time, you know, 'I've done that story. I don't want to do that story.' Or 'I don't want to do it that way."'

And yet, the characters on "Raising the Bar" seem easily interchangeable with those on all those previous shows. And, in the episodes sent to critics, plot developments intended as twists played out without much in the way of surprise.

"Raising the Bar" revolves around oh-so-earnest public defender Jerry Kellerman (Mark-Paul Gosselaar of "NYPD Blue"), whose unwavering idealism puts him into conflict with oh-so-tough Judge Trudy Kessler (Jane Kaczmarek of "Malcolm in the Middle"). She's the modern-day equivalent of a hanging judge.

She puts Jerry behind bars in the pilot, so you've got to wonder what will happen when the writers ratchet things up.

Trudy's only soft spot is for her law clerk (Jonathan Scarfe), a man she really shouldn't be involved with.

While the show is populated by Jerry's boss, Rosalind Whitman (Gloria Reuben of "ER") and other public defenders (Teddy Sears and Natalia Bigliuti), it's not just about that side of the legal story.

Although it doesn't help the balance that assistant district attorney Nick Balco (Currie Graham) is a big jerk.

But not only is one of Jerry's best friends (J. August Richards) a prosecutor, heck, in the pilot Jerry is sleeping with ADA Michelle Ernhardy (Melissa Sagermiller).

There's a bold innovation! Lawyers with intertwined personal lives! We've never seen that before!

Oddly enough, Bochco and Feige went out of their way to defend "Raising the Bar" against criticism they expected — that the characters, particularly Judge Kessler, are too outrageous.

"If anything, she's a fairly moderate portrait," Feige said. "You go down to any criminal courthouse in this country ... and talk to the lawyers who appear before the judges and they will tell you she's dead-on. That they've practiced before people who are just as mercurial and just as sort of out there as Kessler and perhaps more so."

He was a public defender in the Bronx, so we'll absolutely take his word on that.

But you've got to wonder if Feige has actually watched legal dramas when he says that TV judges are "almost universally portray(ed) as stentorian and thoughtful."

Um, when was the last time you saw a thoughtful, dignified judge on "Boston Legal"? Feige thinks his character will be "mistaken for unreality" when, in actuality, she could be mistaken for a judge on another TV show.

And that's the problem with "Raising the Bar." It doesn't.


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