The Whole Truth -- TV Review

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Emotions run high on "The Whole Truth," a legal drama about dueling lawyers who struggle, in the pilot, over a murder and sexual-assault case with possible racist overtones. It's a lot of baggage and cultural hot buttons for a show to take on in its first episode, but for the most part, "Truth" works.

The show, which is set in New York but shot in Los Angeles, revolves around its two leads, law school classmates who took opposite paths. Kathryn Peale (Maura Tierney) is an earnest, no-nonsense prosecutor with short hair and a shorter fuse. "I love the law," she tells a grieving couple, vowing to bring their daughter's killer to justice. "It is the only thing I am good at. Just ask anybody who's unfortunate enough to be involved in my personal life."

Her rival is Jimmy Brogan (Rob Morrow), a hot-shot defense attorney jacked full of confidence who dunks a small basketball in his office when things go well. Morrow, of course, once played a New York doctor stranded in small-town Alaska -- what would Sarah Palin have made of him? -- in "Northern Exposure," but here he's less soulful and his ironic style often comes across as smarmy. He calms down a bit as the episode goes on, but he's not nearly as appealing as Tierney's character, whom he calls "an overcaffeinated grind doing the government's dirty work."

Chances are, each episode will match these two -- enemies, friends, potential lovers? -- back and forth, cross-cutting from the point of view of the defense to the prosecutor's and back again. The back-and-forth makes for pretty good television, ratcheting up the tension and giving a sense of the approach both sides will take in the trial. But you wonder: Do real lawyers really call the opposition attorney every five minutes to taunt, trash-talk and leak their strategy by cell phone?

The pilot centers on the murder of a Latina high school student: A mild-mannered father and schoolteacher goes to trial, and both attorneys build what seem like strong cases. There's enough detail to the way they track down sources and evidence that at moments, at least, we feel like we're getting deeper into the mystery of what happened and the chess game of building a case.

The conclusion isn't entirely surprising, but it is convincing: We don't feel ripped off by the way the decision goes.

Jerry Bruckheimer has been busy lately: This is the second series -- next to the aptly named "Chase," revolving around U.S. marshals in Texas -- that he's produced this season. This one has his trademark slickness and love of convention, but besides some overwrought music, the bombast is down.

So far, so good. The show could go either way: Morrow's character might develop a following in sports bars throughout America, but he's awfully hard to like. If the show is going to be a weekly battle between him and the warmer, more decent Tierney, it needs more balance between the counterparts. Their chemistry feels a bit forced: sometimes it's fun, but it makes you think of better romantically tinged rivalries, whether Ted Danson and Shelley Long on "Cheers" or Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd on "Moonlighting," not to mention the screwball comedies those drew from.

This show doesn't have to offer that kind of classic pairing to be worth watching, but we need to believe this duo when they settle down for a friendly drink at calmer moments. If a life in the law is about more than just shouting and scheming, the downtime needs to make us see that lawyers are people, too.

Airdate: 10-11 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 22 (ABC)
Production: Bonanza Prods. in association with Jerry Bruckheimer Television and Warner Bros. Television
Cast: Rob Morrow, Maura Tierney, Eamonn Walker, Sean Wing, Anthony Ruivivar, Christine Adams
Executive producers: Jerry Bruckheimer, Jonathan Littman, Ed Zuckerman
Creator: Tom Donaghy
Co-executive producers: Tom Donaghy, KristieAnne Reed
Writer: Tom Donaghy
Director: Alex Graves
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