Thursday, March 13, 2008

“Canterbury’s Law” and “New Amsterdam”: Fox’s Take on Law and Order (and "Law and Order")

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]

Fox has unleashed two new hour-long law and order (lower case) offerings on Monday nights, both named for their main characters. “Canterbury’s Law” (8 p.m. Eastern) handles the “law” side of the equation, while “New Amsterdam” (9 p.m. Eastern) covers the “order” part of things.

I can almost see the pitch that led to the pick-up of “New Amsterdam”: It’s the first half hour of “Law and Order,” but with a science fiction aspect and flashbacks. Lasse Hallström, the Swedish director of such gooey confections as “Chocolat” (bad pun intended) and “The Cider House Rules,” is one of the executive producers, which is an immediate message that “New Amsterdam” will go deeper into its characters than your run-of-the-mill police procedural.

The series follows New York homicide detective John Amsterdam (Danish actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), who is just your average Big Apple cop who just happens to be more than 365 years old. You see, back in 1642, when Dutchman John was in New Amsterdam (as New York was known then), he saved the life of a Native American girl during a massacre of her tribe. Since you couldn’t call 1-800-FLOWERS in the 17th century, the girl, instead, casts a spell ensuring that John cannot age or die until he finds his true love.

Fast forward to 2008, and John, having lived through numerous eras in New York history, is now partnered in the NYPD with tough chick detective Eva Marquez (English-born actress Zuleikha Robinson), where he uses his memory of previous life experiences to help solve crimes. In Monday’s episode, flashbacks centered on John’s time as a Civil War field doctor and the patient whose leg he had to amputate. This experience comes to John’s mind (and our screens) as he and Eva investigate the murder of a psychiatrist, possibly by a veteran of the war in Afghanistan who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (a fantastic Orlando Jones).

The crime plot of “New Amsterdam” really does unfurl remarkably like the first half hour of “Law and Order.” Once the crime occurs, the detectives track down new leads, each one pointing in a different direction, twisting and turning until the true killer is revealed. Monday’s episode even centered on a topic covered by a recent “Law and Order,” the controversial practice of therapists convincing patients that they have buried memories of abuse.

And “New Amsterdam” makes use of the New York streets the way “Law and Order” does, giving the action an air of authenticity, unlike the vast majority of New York-set shows that are primarily filmed elsewhere. (Both “New Amsterdam” and “Canterbury’s Law” are filmed in New York, even though the latter program is set in Providence, R.I.)

“New Amsterdam” departs from the “Law and Order” playbook in its look inside the life of its protagonist. In the pilot, John has a heart attack on a subway platform when he sees emergency room physician Sara Dillane (Alexie Gilmore). She rushes him to the hospital and treats him, but he dies on the table. Only, as we know, John can’t die, so he wakes up in the morgue and walks out of the hospital. This convinces him that Sara is his true love, the one that can finally end his long journey. Sara, on the other hand, only knows that one of her dead patients disappeared on her, making her interested in discovering what happened.

The two meet again in Monday’s episode, when John and Eva investigate the psychiatrist’s death. Sara treated the suspect with the victim in the emergency room. Unlike many shows about a protagonist with a secret, John is open about his past with many people, including Eva, his cranky colleague (TV veteran Robert Clohessy), or his 60-ish son (Stephen Henderson). But John, at least at first, can’t tell Sara the truth about his life.

There is a lot to like about “New Amsterdam.” It works as a competent police procedural, and I am interested in how the John-Sara relationship will play out. (The second episode ends with a somewhat predictable complication/twist.) The flashbacks are a nice breath of fresh air, although the Civil War one was a bit over the top. (John’s medical assistant turns out, in the end, to be Walt Whitman.) The parallel between the wounded vet in the civil war flashbacks and the murder suspect in modern times, and the lesson that war has always been hell, is a bit obvious, but also effective. And Coster-Waldau is an engaging lead, nicely shading his character’s world weariness with a dark sense of humor. My only real problem with his performance is that, at inopportune times, he slips out of his American accent (a well-chronicled pet peeve of mine).

But, for the most part, “New Amsterdam” is a nice twist on an old formula.

“Canterbury’s Law,” on the other hand, is less successful in its efforts to pull off a new kind of network television lead character. Julianna Margulies is Elizabeth Canterbury, a Providence defense attorney who specializes in murder cases. She is a flawed protagonist in the vein of recent basic cable anti-heroines like Holly Hunter’s detective in “Saving Grace” and Glenn Close’s lawyer from hell in “Damages.” Elizabeth drinks, cheats on her husband, and bends the rules in defending her clients, all, from what we can tell, caused by her pain over the loss of a child.

I’m all for difficult protagonists, but in “Canterbury’s Law,” the material doesn’t live up to the challenge. The pilot centers on the murder of an 11-year-old, and Elizabeth’s client, Ethan, a mentally fragile guy in his 20s who had already done time for sleeping with his 15-year-old girlfriend when he was 20, is on trial for the crime. Everyone, including Russell (Ben Shenkman), Elizabeth’s lead associate and a former prosecutor, thinks Ethan is guilty. Only Elizabeth thinks he’s innocent. Which is great, but the problem is, the victim’s father is portrayed as such a monster, anyone who doesn’t suspect him hasn’t watched a television cop show in the last 30 years. It doesn’t help when Elizabeth makes lame declarations like, “I know when someone’s lying to me.” Not much to base an entire career on, if you ask me.

Everything in “Canterbury’s Law” is too broad and too cliché to work. The prosecutor, Zach (Terry Kinney), is comically bad to the bone. When Russell asks him if the police denied Ethan his medications before getting him to confess, Zach reaches an Al Pacino-level of outrage and throws pieces of his sandwich at Russell as he leaves. If Zach's mustache was waxed, I’m sure he would have twisted it compulsively while tying a damsel to the railroad tracks. Actually, that damsel could be Elizabeth’s young associate, Molly (Trieste Dunn). If Molly was any more wide-eyed, she’d be an anime character. And Elizabeth is prone to lame proclamations. When one of the associates asks her how she sleeps at night representing murderers, she says, “I sleep the sleep of the righteous.” At that moment, I was feeling the nausea of the nauseated.

There is also an off-putting story line involving Elizabeth cheating on her seemingly supportive and caring husband (Aidan Quinn) with a sleazy private detective, who, at the start of the pilot, she is defending at trial. I think we’re supposed to sympathize with her because she ends the affair with the guy (even though she goes to him for help with her case later), and because, as she explains to him, she had do something to wake herself up. Uh, try a cup of coffee. Or parachute from a plane. Her lame excuse for her infidelity didn’t fly with me and, I suspect, most viewers.

The pilot was directed by Mike Figgis, he of dark, broody films like “Leaving Las Vegas” and “Internal Affairs.” And he brings his darker vision to primetime television. Literally. “Canterbury’s Law” is shot in low-light, with grainy, washed out, desaturated images, far more reminiscent of an indie film than a Fox television show. But cool, moody images don’t count for much when the characters are so two-dimensional.

The series is executive produced by, among others, Denis Leary, who, in shows like “The Job” and “Rescue Me,” has specialized in getting audiences to care about hard-to-like characters. But his previous creations were far richer and more interesting than the lot in “Canterbury’s Law.” There isn’t enough to the people in his new show to make us want to spend an hour with them. Part of the problem is Marguiles. With her scary dragon-lady eyebrows and Leona Helmsley-inspired makeup, she plays Elizabeth so harsh, and so stern, that you just can’t get inside of her enough to care.

In the pilot’s climactic courtroom scene, Elizabeth gets the evil father to confess on the stand, Perry Mason style, culminating in the guy punching her square in the mouth. It was a well-written moment, but I don’t think it played like the folks behind the show hoped it would. Instead of showing us Elizabeth’s vulnerability, it only makes her seem more robotic. She stands up and spits out, through the blood on her face, “Defense rests.” I understand that she was willing to put her own health at risk to make sure the correct child-killer went to prison, but still. Is she human?

In the end, it’s as if the show wants to visit the dark side, but not stay too long. While Nicolas Cage’s suicidal alcoholic dies at the end of “Leaving Las Vegas,” Elizabeth scores a television-friendly victory for Ethan. A tag scene showing her drinking and in pain, as Russell recognizes how the case was more about avenging a boy’s murder (like the death of her own child) than saving an innocent man, felt tacked on, a last-ditch effort to retain the show’s edge. But without interesting, multi-faceted characters, no amount of Elizabeth’s angst matters.

On Monday nights, I would rather spend an hour with time-traveling John Amsterdam than dour, scowling, cheating Elizabeth Canterbury. Fox did a better job with the “order” than with the “law.” Hey, now that Fred Thompson has nothing better to do, maybe he can pop up to Providence and see if he can help. “Canterbury’s Law” could use a little of the expertise demonstrated by “Law and Order.”