It's not that I hate "Franklin & Bash," the new TNT legal drama that debuts tomorrow night at 9. Nor is it that I don't understand what the point is. The problem with "Franklin & Bash" is that the point seems more trouble than it's worth to attain, and unlikely to happen given the show's mostly obnoxious execution.
TNT has developed itself an effective little brand, built on cop shows like "The Closer" and "Rizzoli & Isles" of the sort the broadcast networks have mostly stopped making. And they have a semi-successful medical show in "Hawthorne." The only one of the holy trinity of TV professions the channel's programmers have yet to crack is lawyers. They tried a couple of years ago with "Raising the Bar," which mostly proved that some shows can be too retro and familiar, even to the TNT audience - that, or that Mark-Paul Gosselaar's stringy hairdo was such utter audience repellent that nobody even bothered to come back when they cleaned him up for the second season.
But Gosselaar's usually a likable, capable young actor, and a legal franchise remains territory TNT has yet to mine successfully, so the channel and a more impressively-coiffed Gosselaar have reteamed for "Franklin & Bash."
The show's operating theory seems to be that if you combine a traditional legal drama with a side of frat boy comedy, you'll not only draw in the viewers who miss shows like "LA Law" or "Boston Legal," but also viewers who are into watching dudes partying, playing video games and trying to have a fun, sexy time with the various hotties who walk through the law firm's doors.
Gosselaar is Bash, and Breckin Meyer is Franklin, a pair of ambulance-chasing young buddies whose tiny law firm seems designed mainly to give them something to discuss when they're not offering each other hypotheticals about which famous actresses they can sleep with. They work out of their pimped-out house - the hot tub is often the location for strategy sessions - which they share with their two assistants: agoraphobic case study Pindar (Kumail Najiani) and ex-con Carmen (Dana Davis).
Their goofy, inconsequential lifestyle gets upended when they happen to impress legendary, if eccentric, trial attorney Stanton Infeld (Malcolm McDowell). Infeld is senior partner at a prestigious law firm, and he's enough of a sucker for Eastern philosophy that he believes the stuffy firm needs the wacky hijinks of Franklin and Bash to rechannel its energy, or somesuch premise-establishing silliness.
All of this seems like the labored set-up for a vague culture clash comedy, but not really. Franklin and Bash move into Infeld's imposing offices, and they occasionally startle his stuffed-shirt nephew Damien Karp (Reed Diamond, trying very hard to elevate his character above caricature) by flirting with clients or wandering the office in nothing but board shorts. But for the most part, the show and the veteran lawyers quickly accept that Franklin and Bash work at this place, and that boys will be boys, and isn't it so gosh-darned cute that they spend so much time goofing off?
As I said before, Gosselaar is an actor not without charm or talent. There's a generation that grew up loving "Saved by the Bell," and while much of that enjoyment was either ironic or the result of kids who hadn't developed taste yet, even indiscriminate tweens would've hated Zack Morris if a less likable actor had the part. But Bash feels like Zack cranked up so high that not even Gosselaar can counteract the smarm. And Meyer, who's struggled with likability more often in his career - with odd exceptions like "Clueless" - barely even tries to fight his character's more obnoxious qualities.
There could be an entertaining show to be made about a couple of fun-loving buddies trying to hang onto their laid-back bro-ness while working at a respectable, uptight new job. "Franklin & Bash," perhaps appropriately but unfortunately, doesn't seem to be trying very hard to pull that off. It tries to coast on banter that's not particularly snappy, and on a snickering dependence on sex-related gags and plots. In the premiere, Franklin and Bash win a case by getting their star witness, a buxom stripper, to take off her top while testifying. The second episode features Natalie Zea from "Justified" as a widow accused of killing her elderly husband with too much vigorous sex, and the third episode has the two mystified pals representing a confident but decidedly average-looking woman who insists she was fired from her men's magazine job for being too attractive.
And yet even with all the sex gags, and scenes where Bash plays his guitar or one of Pindar's many psychological problems gets in the way of a case, it's still a fairly traditional, to the point of quaintness, legal drama. And I don't know if the dude comedy window dressing, plus better styling for Gosselaar, is going to ultimately lead to a better fate than what "Raising the Bar" got.
Again, I get why TNT is trying this - the three pillars of TV drama are cops, doctors and lawyers - even if "Franklin & Bash" doesn't seem worth the somewhat minimal-looking effort.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com