“Outlaw,” the first new series to debut on any of the big broadcast networks this fall, is far from the worst rookie of the season (NBC's “Outsourced,” CBS' “(Bleep) My Dad Says” and ABC's “My Generation” are all duking it out for that honor), but it may be the silliest.
The legal drama, which sneak previews tomorrow night at 10 on NBC before moving to Fridays at 10 next week, stars Jimmy Smits as Cyrus Garza, a Bush appointee to the Supreme Court widely considered to be the Court’s most conservative justice. Then Garza’s father, a famously liberal defense attorney, dies in a car crash that Cyrus himself survives, and everything changes. His political beliefs appear to do a 180, and he decides to resign from the Court and travel the country pursuing injustice like his father would have wanted him to.
"Ever since the accident, it's felt like I'm hurting the people I should be protecting," he explains.
It was around that point that I began to realize that the only way “Outlaw” makes any kind of sense in terms of plot logic or characterization is if it’s not really a legal drama, but a body swap comedy in legal drag, about an eccentric defense lawyer whose ghost possesses the body of his conservative ingrate son.
Viewed that way, I buy that Garza would leave the most powerful legal job in our land to go into private practice - and, for that matter, that his upwardly-mobile law clerks (including Jesse Bradford and Ellen Woglom) would eagerly follow him, even though at least one of them has an offer to go work for another justice. If we’re meant to take this seriously, we can’t. If we’re meant to view this as “Freaky Friday’s Law,” then anything goes.
Smits is charming as ever, but even he can’t hide the fact that he’s not playing a character, but a collection of cliches about dramatic irony dressed in a nice suit and expensive haircut.
In the pilot episode, Garza wholeheartedly embraces his father’s liberal ideals, but when we get to the second episode, involving a white Arizona cop accused of racial-profiling in a shooting tied to the immigration law, he stuns his new team (with David Ramsey and Carly Pope signing on after he leaves the bench) by choosing the cop’s side because “I’ve spent my whole career defending states’ rights.” From episode to episode, scene to scene, Garza contradicts himself and confounds others’ expectations of him, not because he has any kind of consistent motivation, but because it’s the most surprising thing the writers can make him do in that scene.
There’s a fair amount of “House” in the formula, too. (Just like James Woods’ short-lived “Shark,” which had the opposite premise, of a renowned defense lawyer who has a come-to-Jesus moment and becomes a prosecutor.) Garza admits he hired Woglom’s character to clerk for him because she’s pretty, which is the same excuse House gave for hiring Cameron back in that show’s pilot. Instead of a distracting Vicodin addiction, Garza suffers from a gambling problem. (The first two episodes both feature Garza living it up against a CGI backdrop of Las Vegas.)
However you view it - mediocre “House” rip-off, improbable law show or “Like Father, Like Son 2: Judicial Boogaloo” - you have to like Jimmy Smits an awful lot to make “Outlaw” a Friday appointment. I’m as devoted an “NYPD Blue” fan as they come, and even I’m not willing to make that leap.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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