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Time travel was all the rage for networks last development season, but only CBS opted instead for development-by-time-machine.
The network’s Marty and Doc went back to the late ‘90s for braying, male star-driven multicams Kevin Can Wait and Man With a Plan. They took the DeLorean to the ‘80s to grab MacGyver and then when that didn’t work, they went back to try again.
Air date: Sep 20, 2016
Finally, CBS’ raiders of the days of future past took the relatively short jaunt back to the mid-2000s, when the success of House had every network looking for their own crotchety, anti-social genius capable of solving crimes through the mere act of squinting. CBS already had perhaps the most successful of the post-House Squinty Outcast procedurals with The Mentalist, but for the new drama Bull, the network went straight to House co-creator Paul Attanasio.
A little too much of a Xerox of a Xerox of a Xerox, Bull is a drama inspired by Dr. Phil McGraw’s jury consulting youth, instead set in the present and featuring a main character whose names are neither “Phil” nor “McGraw” and whose resemblance to Dr. Phil is limited to a basic sharing of organs or orifices. My hope is that Bull is, like AMC’s Better Call Saul, an origin story in which the final episode will feature Michael Weatherly’s Dr. Jason Bull shaving his head, gluing on a bushy fake mustache and announcing, “Henceforth, you shall call me McGraw!” My expectation is that it is not.
As written by Attanasio and McGraw, the pilot finds Dr. Bull running Trial Analysis Corporation, a company which employs a team of experts to help out-think the justice system, utilizing the highest of technology to eliminate all chance when it comes to things like jury selection, witness preparation and case presentation. Benny (Freddy Rodriguez) is a defense attorney who specializes in elaborate mock trials and making fun of Dr. Bull for having been married to his sister (Benny’s sister, not his own sister). Danny (Jaime Lee Kirchner) is a former cop who investigates things and goes so conspicuously undercover that I mostly forgot she was in the pilot. Marissa (Geneva Carr) is a Homeland Security veteran who gives expositionally clunky guided tours around the facility and natters about neurolinguistics. Cable (Annabelle Attanasio) wears knit hats because somebody saw a picture of a hacker wearing knit hats and she’s a hacker. She also lectures Dr. Bull on things millennials do, because he, like most of CBS’ core audience, does not understand things millennials do. Oh, and there’s a stylist played by Christopher Jackson from Hamilton, who neither sings nor dances here. I’m reading several of these descriptions off of my press notes, because in the pilot, the supporting characters are given almost nothing to do. This is Dr. Bull’s show.
And Dr. Bull? Well, he squints and hallucinates conversations with jury members and squints and growls and runs his fingers through his hair, but other than those pesky millennials, Dr. Bull understands everybody better than they understand themselves. In the original pilot, Dr. Bull was praised for having “3 PhDs in psychology,” which was a stupid boast that was wisely trimmed out and, in fact, Dr. Bull’s entire introduction has been tweaked just enough that in the version viewers will see on Tuesday, you get an improved glimpse of a smarmy, snarky, pick-pocketing Dr. Bull, who likes to flirt with the ladies and has a prodigiously refined gaydar. The Dr. Bull in the current pilot, a guy who doesn’t boast about his quantity of doctorates but still spends so much time repeating his name and his title that a drinking game built around mentions of “Doctor” and “Bull” would kill you before the episode’s final verdict, is far closer to the sort of character one actually would want to watch a show built around. He’s not there yet, but Weatherly is an actor who has gotten great mileage out of this sort of twinkle-in-his-eye character and early changes imply that the writers get what was missing initially.
There’s also nothing inherently wrong with the core procedural device. As a man-on-the-street opening shows, Americans are skeptical about the legal system and the ability to receive a fair trial in 2016. The show isn’t prepared, based on that skepticism, to present Dr. Bull as either a rakish anti-hero, the guy with the cheat codes to make the scales of justice even less balanced, or a Robin Hood-esque swashbuckler helping to correct the broken system. The pilot’s main trial focuses on a seemingly spoiled rich kid charged with murder and attempts to have it both ways for Dr. Bull. He’s a prick, but since he’s practically winking at us, he’s our prick, which was the way we felt about Dr. House, except that with Dr. House, his final goal was always an empirical good. Nine times out of 10, House was going to make you healthy, even if he was rude in the process. If Bull is just a puppet master for hire — “He’ll get you off,” the tasteless billboards say, but that’s equally likely if you’re guilty and can pay him — he’s harder to like and I see no indication that the pilot doesn’t want you to like Dr. Bull.
The opening case is a neutral litmus test on its main character and it’s also a legal mess, full of implausible courtroom antics and several action beats that pilot director Rodrigo Garcia handled so poorly I had to go back and rewatch them to figure out where the edits went wrong. The pilot also ends with a problematic device in which the truth of the case is revealed outside of Dr. Bull’s point of view, a pretty straight-up undermining of the show’s thesis that “trying the facts” and “innocent until proven guilty” are antiquated approaches. If Dr. Bull is results-oriented and the truth isn’t his business, it shouldn’t be the show’s business, either. It’s just another structural conceit too far in a pilot that could have used those two minutes to turn supporting characters into more than ciphers so that my review would have anything positive or negative to say about anybody other than Weatherly.
And what’s with Dr. Bull’s ability to communicate with the jurors, anyway? Is it a cool power or does he have actual dissociative issues? There’s a conversation late in the pilot that was either horrible or proof of a diagnosable condition. The first time I watched the pilot I was sure it was the former. The second time I was more open to the possibility it was the latter, but what are the odds Dr. Phil has signed off on a show doing something that provocative? Low.
No, Bull doesn’t feel like it’s intended to be provocative or, despite the man-on-the-street opening, to have any real impact on our feelings about the system. Its adoration of Dr. Bull’s qualifications and smirky, growly omniscience and its awe at the technology his team wields takes the place of a meaningful legal critique, procedural precision or developing an ensemble. Designed mostly as a showcase for Weatherly and generator of one-off episodes that go down easy after NCIS, Bull is still working to meet even that low bar, though I guess minor revisions to the original pilot helped.
Cast: Michael Weatherly, Freddy Rodriguez, Geneve Carr, Jaime Lee Kirchner, Annabelle Attanasio, Christopher Jackson
Creators: Phil McGraw and Paul Attanasio
Premieres: Tuesday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (CBS)
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