'Bluff City Law' and 'All Rise': TV Reviews

Jake Giles Netter/NBC; Monty Brinton/CBS
'Bluff City Law' (left), 'All Rise'
Neither offers much more than procedural comfort food.
9/23/2019

In a Monday battle of so-so broadcast legal dramas, NBC's 'Bluff City Law' boasts star Jimmy Smits, but CBS' 'All Rise' offers a better-structured look at justice and injustice.

Monday nights this fall will be very special for TV viewers unsure about the complications of the justice system and hungry for platitude-packed broadcast dramas ready to make that most controversial of points: Justice is hard, but worth it!

Fortunately, viewers don't have to choose between CBS' All Rise, airing at 9 p.m. ET/PT, and Bluff City Law, which pops up on NBC an hour later. Still, two straight mediocre hours of mercurial protagonists dipping their toes into a new side of the legal system is a lot. To quickly cut to the chase, All Rise is the better show, swifter to capitalize on its ensemble and steadier in its procedural aspects, but Bluff City Law is the show with a larger number of waffling Southern accents and infinitely more Jimmy Smits. Plan accordingly.

While Smits is the big star and big draw for Bluff City Law, it's actually Caitlin McGee's show. McGee plays Sydney Strait, a young Memphis attorney who turned her back on her famous civil rights advocate dad (Smits' Elijah Strait) to work as a cutthroat corporate lawyer. She makes big bucks and she can sleep at night because there's no risk of emotional involvement. But then her mom, never seen and used exclusively as a dramatic construct, dies and Elijah tries to woo his estranged daughter back to the fold.

"There's a reason it was a disaster the first time!" protests Sydney. "We're both alphas! Two alphas just don't mix! Not to mention, we're total opposites with how we do the job. You're conservative. I wage war."

Oy.

The pilot script by Dean Georgaris, back at NBC after The Brave, is full of dialogue in that vein, written like "show don't tell" were an unheard-of concept. The second episode sent to critics calms down a bit and isn't entirely composed of characters instructing Sydney to curb her anger and stop being reckless, punctuated by Sydney yelling at somebody or getting held in contempt of court to confirm their point. There's so much exposition about her fiery personality and unhinged passions that there's no way any actress could have embodied this alleged Tasmanian devil of a woman, but McGee is fine.

This expositional dialogue is also completely at odds with other character details about Elijah, who has to perplexingly be depicted as simultaneously crusading and conservative, progressive and yet not nearly as advanced as his daughter, even if she repressed that side of herself to go to the dark side. He's supposed to be a philanderer, but the show doesn't want us to hate him, so that's safely contained in the past. He's supposed to be brilliant, but he misuses "begs the question" in the second episode. He's supposed to be born and bred in Memphis, but Smits' accent goes in and out.

Remarkably, none of this inconsistency leads to a bad performance, because Smits offers the necessary gravitas to somewhat balance the show's tendency toward cornball "Why measure yourself by money when you have the chance to change the world?" sentiments.

The cumbersome introductions extend to the rest of the cast: Sydney is reunited with old law school chum Anthony (Michael Luwoye) only after they recite their respective Vanderbilt class ranks and hotshot rainmaker Jake (Barry Sloane) isn't even seen until after we've panned over all of the Boston sports memorabilia on his wall, just so you know that whatever accent Sloane is attempting, it isn't supposed to be Southern.

Structurally, the show whips around from weekly forgettable David vs. Goliath cases to one serialized case without enough meat on its bones to justify the extension and more frivolous legal matters like the fight over a BBQ recipe. At least they were able to film in Memphis and there are moments of decent texture, but generally the show feels like something David E. Kelley would have made and made better 20 years ago.

My initial read on the All Rise pilot was that it was CBS' failed attempt to do a Shonda Rhimes show, but after watching two additional episodes, I'm willing to adjust those aspirations to an average attempt to do a Robert and Michelle King (The Good Wife) show in Los Angeles.

Simone Missick plays Lola Carmichael, who is making the move from the DA's office to a position as Los Angeles County Superior Court judge. Though her buddy and former prosecuting colleague Mark (Wilson Bethel) advises her to be Sphinx-like and her judging mentor Lisa Benner (Marg Helgenberger) advises her not to make waves, that's not the way Lola is wired. In fact, as her judicial assistant Sherri (Ruthie Ann Miles) tells her and us alike, the other assistants have nicknamed Lola "The Lola-Coaster" because of how volatile she is. See how that's still better writing than having a character self-describe, "We're both alphas! Two alphas just don't mix!"?

It's a great role for Missick, who gets to play Lola's unpredictable sense of justice, countered by her amusing confusion at the logistics of her new job and her likable joy at getting to impose "recess" whenever she wants. But no matter what the posters or ads try telling you, All Rise is not a solo star vehicle. It's much more of a courthouse ensemble, giving full storylines to Mark, to earnest public defender Emily (Jessica Camacho) and bailiff/law student Luke (J. Alex Brinson). It's hard to recognize because the pilot, written by Greg Spottiswood, isn't very well constructed and never finds a rhythm between its multiple cases-of-the-week and Lola's acclimation process.

Subsequent episodes (critics have been sent a trio) are an improvement, clarifying the A-story, B-story and ongoing character-driven beats. It's in those post-pilot episodes that you sense the inspiration of The Good Wife in the types of cases the characters are assigned, whether it's a ripped-straight-from-The Good Fight moral quandary about the presence of ICE officials in the courtroom or an ultra-quirky cyber-hacking/avatar murder trial. At least All Rise is borrowing from the best. My standard with new network procedurals is, "Can I remember any of the weekly stories a day after watching the episode?" and with this one, I actually can. A little.

Early episodes also decently establish the show's core relationships. Bethel, in his best post-Hart-of-Dixie usage, banters well with Missick and has some dynamic courtroom moments. Camacho and Brinson have good chemistry in their characters' slow-developing flirtation/friendship. Helgenberger hasn't had much to do thus far, but she's a solid voice-of-reason. The only character in dire need of an overhaul is Lindsay Menendez's court reporter or transcriber or something where she's been instantly reduced to being a comic foil when she isn't slobbering all over Mark.

All Rise is prone to dogmatic exposition like "Of course I don't wanna fight the entire federal government, but I will!" and its attempts to brand itself with Los Angeles specificity — Bestia reference! LeBron James reference! — isn't smooth.

Still, in the battle of low-aspiration Monday night broadcast legal dramas, Bluff City Law may have the star power, but All Rise is the initially superior version of the legal procedural it's trying to be.

All Rise premieres Monday, 9 p.m. ET/PT (CBS)

Bluff City Law premieres Monday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (NBC)