ABC Studios // 2008 // 430 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Cynthia Boris (Retired) // June 8th, 2009
There are two sides to every case. And every lawyer.
When Steven Bochco read David Feige's book about life as a public defender, he was impressed but still said there's no show here. For a courtroom drama to be successful, the audience has to empathize with the person on trial, but who was going to feel sorry for a drug dealer, a prostitute, or any of the other low life characters that end up with a public defender? Feige convinced Bochco that he was wrong, and boy was he right. Raising the Bar: The Complete First Season is now on DVD.
Jerry Kellerman (Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Saved by the Bell) is a public defender with too much on his plate. Though he's swamped with cases, he refuses to simply push his clients through the system. He wants justice and that can be hard to come by these days.
Making Jerry's life more miserable is Judge Trudy Kessler (Jane Kaczmarek, Malcolm in the Middle) who seems more intent on teaching the young lawyer a lesson than in settling a case. Lucky for Jerry, Kessler's law clerk Charlie Sagansky (Jonathan Scarfe), a closeted gay man romantically involved with the judge, is on his side.
Heading up the office is levelheaded Rosalind Whitman (Gloria Reuben, ER) and sitting at the next desk is the naïve Bobbi Gilardi (Natalia Cigliuti, Saved by the Bell: The New Class).
On the opposite side of the courtroom are prosecutors Michelle Ernhardt (Melissa Sagemiller, Sleeper Cell) and Marcus McGrath (J. August Richards, Angel), both of whom socialize with the PD's despite the objections of their sleazy boss Nick Balco (Currie Graham, Suddenly Susan).
The characters aren't very different than what you'd find on LA Law or Boston Legal, but the cases are something else.
* "Pilot" -- Jerry defends a black man accused of raping a white woman, but he can't seem to catch a break in court. Charles Malik Whitfield (Supernatural) guest stars.
* "Guatemala Gulfstream" -- Jerry's witness for the defense is in Guatemala and he's not likely to return to the states since he has outstanding warrants. It's Michelle's first murder case, and she's told to win at all costs.
* "I Will, I'm Will" -- Jerry's client is a mentally ill man whose only hope is an in-patient program, and good luck finding one of those. He also takes on the case of a woman who got into a fight at the welfare office when they failed to cut her check.
* "Richie Richer" -- Jerry defends a destitute mother whose arrest could be a ploy to get her to testify in a murder case.
* "Bagels and Locks" -- in what is likely the most controversial episode, Jerry defends a man who admits to raping but not murdering an 8-year old boy.
* "Hang Time" -- Jerry defends a man who stole money he believed was owed to him, and Bobbi's domestic violence case hits a little too close to home.
* "A Leg to Stand On" -- Bobbi defends a soldier who lost his leg in the war and is medicating himself with heroin.
* "Out on the Roof" -- Things get sticky when Jerry handles a case for Charlie and it ends up in front of Judge Trudy.
* "Roman Holiday" -- Jerry defends an HIV positive man accused of attempted murder because he spit in a police officer's face.
* "Shop Till You Drop" -- One of Judge Kessler's cases is overturned on appeal, and that makes for a very sticky retrial. Richard defends an elderly woman who can't pay for all of the items she's bought from a TV shopping network.
When I first tuned in to watch Raising the Bar, I developed an instant love/hate relationship with the show. The pilot was overly dramatic with longhaired Jerry acting the martyr, constantly whining and even crying over the lack of justice for his clients. And his antics were nothing compared to those of Judge Trudy who seemed to enjoy punishing Jerry even though it was wholly unfair to his client, who is supposed to be innocent until proven guilty.
It's clear to see that this series has a very strong point of view. The system is broken and they make that point episode after episode. Then I got to the episode "I Will, I'm Will," and my opinion changed. Suddenly, I understood what they were trying to say -- that anyone -- anyone -- can end up in jail, and that's scary. In this case, it's Kea who got into a scuffle at the welfare office when she couldn't get the money she needed to care for her grandmother. Sure, she shouldn't have fought with the security guard, but she was frustrated and angry and haven't we all been there?
Then we got to "Bagels and Locks," and I knew this show was brave beyond belief. This is the episode that will either have you tuning in without fail or vowing never to watch another Bochco show ever again.
The defendant in this case, the person you're supposed to be cheering on, is a pedophile who admits to drugging and sodomizing an 8-year-old boy. Now the man is being charged with boy's murder, but he says the boy was alive when he left him. It's Jerry's job to get the jury to find the man not guilty of murder even as the boy's devastated parents watch from the gallery.
Now this is where you've got to decide if you want justice or revenge. If you believe in justice, then you have to say, no matter how heinous the original crime, if he didn't commit the murder, then he shouldn't go to jail for the murder. But watching the hero of the show defending a confessed pedophile...that's a tough one.
The majority of the cases on the show aren't that heavy duty, but they do point out the imbalance in the legal system. People with money and power get away with more than people who can't afford bail and a lawyer with time to spare. You see, it's not that Jerry and the others aren't good lawyers, it's just that they have too many cases and too little time, so pleading guilty even when you're not is often the best answer to a horrendous problem. It's sad and after 10 episodes, I believe it's the truth. And that scares me.
In addition to the caseload, you'll also get a healthy dose of soap-style romances and personal problems between the 10 regular characters. A little something for everyone.
Turning to the DVD itself, the three discs are packaged in a snap case with a useless slip sleeve. The navigation screens are plain and simple. The video and audio quality are as you'd expect on a brand new series. The special features are nice but nothing special. The meatiest piece is the featurette "Sworn Testimony: True Stories of a Public Defender" with producer and real public defender David Feige. Here you get a look into how the show came to be. Next is "Behind the Bar: An After Hours Roundtable with the Cast." Several of the cast members sit around and randomly discuss the show. I enjoyed this more than I thought I would as it gave me a good feeling for the actors and how they must interact on a daily bases.
There is the obligatory blooper reel called "Mistrials," and it's mostly a collection of blown lines. The sticker on the slip sleeve says there are deleted scenes. If there are, I couldn't find them.
Finally, there are two commentary tracks. Bochco and Feige handle "Bagels and Locks" but they don't have that much to say. I much preferred "Out on the Roof" which has commentary by Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Jane Kaczmarek, Currie Graham, Gloria Reuben, Natalia Cigliuti, Teddy Sears, and J. August Richards. Like the roundtable discussion, this group of actors vamps their way through with behind the scenes trivia, in-jokes and friendly banter. It's worth a listen.
My only complaint is a packaging issue. Why oh why do studios put the episode titles on the back of the cover art. This means I have remove the discs in order to see which episodes are on which DVD. There has to be a better way.
Raising the Bar is an unusual animal as legal dramas go. Sure it has the expected cast of quirky characters from dedicated do-goers to snappy dressers looking for headlines. But I can't think of another legal show that makes you root for what is traditionally the bad guy. If you believe our legal system is irreparably flawed, then you'll find much to cheer about in this cynical series.
This court finds Raising the Bar: The Complete First Season guilty simply because the episode titles are obscured by the DVDs. Life without parole! Next case!
Review content copyright © 2009 Cynthia Boris; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: ABC Studios
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 430 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Gag Reel
* Official Site