Raising the Bar: The Complete First Season Review

The best thing you could say about the first season of ABC Studios and producer Stephen Bochco’s (NYPD Blue) production Raising the Bar is that it does exactly what it sets out do. Make no mistake about it, this is a by-the-numbers courtroom drama; another addition to an already overcrowded market of day and nighttime television that unfolds primarily in justice’s hallowed halls. Raising the Bar does manage to briefly distinguish itself on the strength of dialogue and production values, but it can’t avoid the sinking feeling that you’ve seen this all before. Nevertheless, there is a certain comfort to the atypical unpredictability the show brings to many of verdicts and the way the lives of the cast intersect.

Raising the Bar primarily revolves around Jerry Kellerman (Mark-Paul Gosselaar), a plainly idealistic public defender whose ruffled shirt and constantly undone tie should help identify him immediately. Kellerman’s brash behavior and his fervent search for justice has a tendency to cause him trouble, especially with a petulant judge played by Jane Kaczmarek of Malcolm in the Middle fame. Anyone familiar with Kaczmarek’s performance on that show, or more importantly her repeat cameos on The Simpsons, can expect a familiar face and attitude.

Still, the actors fare admirably, as does the rest of the cast. Kellerman’s relationship with opposing prosecutor Michelle Ernhardt (Melissa Sagemiller) and his practice under the serene guidance of Rosalind Whitman (Gloria Reuben) are both developed with some above par writing; Raising the Bar especially excels in capturing the shop talk between various attorneys, dripping with legal slang that’s sometimes difficult to follow.

The courtroom sessions are about what you’d expect, with the exception of a few surprises and stellar casting in the bit parts for mostly everyone. Although many of these actors appear briefly, only to testify or react, they seem natural in their surroundings and help develop the attorneys we follow through the back-and-forth dialogues. Each episode (there are 10 in the first season) usually deals with two separate cases, and gives a bit of time for Kellerman to clash with the judge and the lawyers to go out for drinks toward the end of the episode. The friendly, colloquial and rather genial interaction between the group, even as they argue against one another in a court of law, is refreshing and certainly keeps the show from taking sides.

Production-wise, the show is again above average, with outstanding TV lighting by Rick Bota and Frank Perl. The editing, courtesy of Jonathan P. Shaw and Rick Tuber, is also surprising at first, energetic and swift, taking a bit of getting used but then sinking in as a very effective way of conveying tension in conversation. Still, despite the effective and highly professional crew, the show is weighed down by expectations of mediocrity. There is really nothing to set it apart from any other drama of a similar sort, although it is no more or less comfortable to watch and definitely better made than some other series. You may grow to like it more as it develops, but you probably won’t be able to shake the likenesses that burden it. 

DVD Bonus Features

The DVD opens with an overabundance of trailers, so skip at will if you don’t enjoy that sort of thing. Otherwise, the third disk in the three disk set has several short featurettes, beginning with "Sworn Testimony: True Stories of a Public Defender" (13:45), which gives a background on the show as well as David Feige, an actual attorney who acted as co-creator. His insights are entertaining and show just how much real-life authenticity the crew and cast attempted to bring to the show. "Behind the Bar: An After-Hours Roundtable with the Cast" (13:16), is a just that, a collection of the cast trading anecdotes and stories from how they got on the show to various goings-on during filming. "Mistrials: Bloopers from Season One" (1:54) is a short blooper from episodes in the first season. There are also commentaries with the cast and crew on select episodes.

"Raising the Bar: The Complete First Season" is on sale June 2, 2009 and is rated PG13. Drama, Television. Directed by Eric Laneuville, Jesse Bochco. Written by Steven Bochco, David Feige, Jonathan Abrahams, Alison Cross. Starring Gloria Reuben, Jane Kaczmarek, Mark Paul Gosselaar, Melissa Sagemiller.

Mark Zhuravsky • Staff Writer

I'm a prolific blogger, writer and editor who loves film.


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