Raising the Bar – Not Bochco at His Best

raising-the-bar-etbscreenwritingAccording to Media Post Publications: “TNT’s Raising the Bar (Steven Bochco’s new legal show) rocketed to a record-setting 7.7 million viewers in its early September premiere. But in the most recent outing–week four– the show’s viewer balloon has much less air–now down to 2.3 million viewers in its most recent outing (this past week).”

Why aren’t viewers more enthused? Want a quick take-away line: The audience needs to be actively concerned about a character’s sanity, safety or soul to be truly engaged.

Power of Idealism

Mark-Paul Gosselaar plays the show’s hero and nominal protagonist, Jerry Kellerman, a lawyer in the New York City public defender’s office. He is a classic Power of Idealism character. Kellerman is rebellious, passionate, intense, short-tempered and given to explosive dramatic grandstanding on principle. Think of a late-twenties, at the beginning of his career, John McCain with floppy (slightly greasy) hippie-length hair and a baggy suit. Not a pretty sight, and for my taste, an over the top portrayal. There’s too much flailing about and not enough deep smoldering danger, which is key to the most delicious angry young man characters.

Power of Conscience

Jane Kaczmarek, plays Judge Trudy Kessler, Kellerman’s nemesis with an Ann Coulter-style mean streak. Judge Kessler is a Power of Conscience character gone a bit to the Dark Side. She is smart, inflexible, harsh, a stickler for rules and proper conduct and very concerned with “judicial process.” She’d be much more interesting if her desire to rise in elective office were driven by duty and sense of mission rather than the desire for personal accomplishment. She’s a bit blurry right now. Hillary Clinton at her steely best would be a good model here.

Power of Ambiton

Melissa Sagemiller plays Michelle Ernhardt, Kellerman’s girlfriend, and a young prosecutor. She is a beautiful highly-motivated Power of Ambition character who will do anything for a “win.” She is willing to bend the law until it breaks, play fast and loose with the facts and wants to rise quickly in the prosecutor’s office. Not suprisingly, Ernhardt and Kellerman repeatedly clash but their arguments are predictable.

Not Enough Personal Urgency

Unfortunately, everyone is pretty much a stock character without the deep rich internal conflicts so viscerally present in Bochco’s sensational NYPD Blue. There is little personal urgency for any of the characters. The audience doesn’t need to worry for principal character, Jerry Kellerman, like they worried for Andy Sipowicz. The wrenching internal struggle for the character is absent and so the audience’s emotional bond is weak.

The setting has urgency and certainly, crime and punishment is always a high stakes arena. That’s not enough. The audience needs to be actively concerned about a character’s sanity, safety or soul to be truly engaged. The audience should be forced to tune in because personal disaster is always right around the corner. It’s like cheering for your favorite sports team– if you don’t tune in and personally “will” them to victory they could lose! And if they lose, then next time they need you all the more!!

Lack of Complexity

Equally problematic for Raising the Bar, are its rather pat simplistic stories. Everything gets wrapped up neatly in less than 44 minutes. I understand the need to have “stand alone” episodes for commercial reasons but short-cutting story and tidying loose ends in a hurry can cripple authenticity and credibility. Too often the show does this and doesn’t “feel” real. The iconic Law and Order, an endless replayed staple on TNT, does this much better.

The degree of “innocent” accused criminals also hampers authenticity. It is stereotypical to portray everyone represented by the public defender’s offfice as guilty. But it begs credulity to believe so many of those charged are somehow “not guilty.”

Most of the cases have a racial angle and reach for social significance, a Bochco trademark. But in Raising the Bar the really tough questions of racism and the wrenching struggle to protect the rights of individuals vs the safety of society are not tackled in a complex, emotionally gut-wrenching way. NYPD Blue had a much more intense, multi-layered and explosive take on racism that brought the topic alive and made it feel real and very urgent to the story.

At this stage, the show lacks sufficient authenticity and personal urgency to be a hit. I don’t feel compelled to tune in and it looks like many viewers who initially gave the show a look aren’t compelled to come back. Raising the Bar has a second season order but Bochco and company will have to dig deeper if they want a third season.

What Happens in Vegas

WhatHappensinVegas ETBScreenwritingA very long international flight is the perfect time to catch up on movies I missed the first time around.  On this trip I managed to catch up with a high-spirited Romantic Comedy romp that turned out to be a really enjoyable surprise.  The film has its flaws, particularly in its rather pat ending.  The finish is predictable and lacks that little extra twist that lifts this kind of story above the ordinary. But the film does have its virtues.

Joy McNally (Cameron Diaz) is super-conscientious career woman engaged to a man who is exhausted by her organized, detail-oriented uptight attitude.  She is a Power of Conscience character who schedules a meeting with her fiancee to “make a plan to make plans.”  Fed up, he breaks up with her in her apartment hallway.  Joy is humiliated that all their friends are listening as they wait inside for a suprise birthday party for HIM.

Jack Fuller (Ashton Kutcher) has the opposite problem.  He is “not serious boyfriend or husband material.”  He is a Power of Ambition character who is so afraid of failing (and proving he is a loser) that he never takes a gamble or finishes anything.  He is fired by his disgruntled fed-up boss, who also happens to be his father.

Feeling devastated, they both head to Las Vegas to (literally) drown their sorrows. A computer error is the “meet cute” that throws them together in the same room. The two spend a drunken night of true confession and “my life is crappier than your life.” They wake up to discover they are married.

A 3 million dollar jackpot won with Joy’s quarter but played by Jack lands them in front of a judge, in an argument about who can claim the money.  The judge decides that they should remain married for 6 months and attend counseling sessions before splitting up either the money or the marriage. Neat as a pin Joy moves into Jack’s sloppy and disgusting bachelor pad.

Over the course of the film there is a real exchange of gifts.  Joy learns to be less uptight and driven to prove her “worthiness.” Jack learns to believe in himself enough to put his talent on the line.  He becomes the woodworking craftsman (and artist) he was meant to be.

Jack Fuller is a refreshing take on the Power of Ambition.  This Character Type is usually portrayed as an eager young striver in the Tom Cruise mode of Jerry Maguire or Rain Man. Instead, Jack starts out squarely in his fear.  He is paralyzed by his utter conviction (and his father’s belief) that he is a failure.  When Joy speaks up on his behalf, Jack is astonished.  At a corporate retreat she makes him feel like a winner.

Joy is a more conventional Power of Conscience female character.  She is the good girl who works hard, is responsible and plays by the rules.  She is vying for a promotion in a job she hates because that’s the “right” thing to do. Jack teaches Joy the importance of loving what you do and finding time for family and friends.

Check this movie out. It’s not perfect but it hits enough of the right notes to be a fun romp and a satisfying bon bon of entertainment.