Judge Cynthia Boris bags on this JAG.
"If you touch anything other than your own personal joystick, I will eject you over the Adriatic and forget where I did it"
Military jargon, male posturing, ships, jets, and uniforms galore—sometimes it's hard to see the plot under all the pomp and circumstance, but plot there is, including murder, mishaps and malcontents of all kinds. Said to be a cross between A Few Good Men and Top Gun, I say JAG is more like Law & Order on steroids. Button up your dress whites; there's a table waiting for you in the Officer's Mess where we'll sit and discuss the pros and cons of JAG: The Complete First Season.
Facts of the Case
Former Navy fighter pilot Harmon Rabb (David James Elliott) is now a lawyer working in the service of the Judge Advocate General's Office. JAG, as it's called, is the branch of service that investigates, prosecutes and defends legal matters involving members of the US Navy and the Marines. While the TV series prides itself on its military accuracy, creator Donald Bellisario admits that his JAG officers often go above and beyond what they would be called upon to do in real life. But that's what makes the series interesting to watch.
In the first season, Rabb is assisted by Lt. Meg Austin (Tracey Needham, The Division) after Andrea Parker (The Pretender) was canned for not being girlie enough (my interpretation of the facts as presented in the pilot commentary). In addition, you'll find several great supporting characters in this first season, such as John M. Jackson as Admiral Chegwidden (does he remind you of Mitch Pileggi or what?). Patrick Labyorteaux (Little House on the Prairie) makes his first few appearances as Lt. Bud Roberts, a character that will return in the second season and last through out the run of the show. This DVD set contains the following episodes:
I gotta say, this was a hard one for me. Before receiving the DVD, I'd only ever seen a few episodes of JAG. I love NCIS which was created by the same team, so I assumed I'd like this show too. That wasn't the case. They're two very different series. As I often do with DVD sets for shows I've never seen, I watched the first episode, the last episode then two randomly chosen episodes in between. Normally, this gives me a good idea of a show's style but not in this case. Let's start at the beginning.
In the pilot commentary, Bellisario says he came up with the idea for the show about ten years ago when he heard that women were going to be allowed in combat scenarios. This tickled his creative juices and he sat down to write the first act of the pilot. Hearing that, you would think the entire series was about women in combat, but it's not. The show is male-centered around a JAG lawyer and his female assistant. In the pilot, actress Andrea Parker tries to hold her own, but she still comes off as second fiddle to Elliott's Harmon Rabb. The plot of the pilot involves the death of a female Naval officer and the question of murder, accident, or suicide. I assume she was murdered but I didn't stick around to find out. I was bored and switched it off long before the end of the episode.
Jump to the final episode of the season—and boy was I confused. Apparently, NBC canceled the series before the end of the first season, and the final episode was never aired here in the US. (It was aired in syndicated reruns on USA years later). This is important for two reasons. The episode features an appearance by Catherine Bell who would be replacing Tracey Needham when the show moved to CBS by the second season. So what? Here's what—SPOILER—you've been warned.
Bell plays a completely different character who is murdered in the first few minutes of the show. Whodunit? Who knows? The episode is a cliffhanger that was never completed since the show shifted networks. I'm told that there is a third season episode that attempts to wrap up the storyline but please—I have to wait three years for the ending? I don't even like waiting for summer hiatus to end when a show cliff hangs. Personally, I would have preferred to have the episode left off and placed as a bonus feature on the third season DVD.
Now for the surprise. The fourth episode that I watched, "Black Ops," totally grabbed me. It's a much more action-oriented episode involving a possible military conspiracy, a terrific guest cast, and a tight storyline. This is what I was hoping the entire season would be.
So, I'm torn. There were several changes in the series by the time it moved to CBS in its second season. The unevenness of the first season might be a case of a show finding its legs.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
For such a popular series with such a huge cult following, Paramount plays it kinda skimpy when it comes to presentation. On the upside, the set has nice box art; three single snap cases with additional art and best of all the episode titles are listed on each DVD. I love that! I hate having to look up episodes on a separate book or foldout. Since it's an action show, I was expecting a jazzy animated navigation screen but no. It's a simple graphic, clean and nice but not really fitting of the show.
The special features are also a let down. There is only one commentary, and that's Bellisario on the pilot…nothing from the actors. There are three short featurettes: "How the Series Took Flight," which repeats much of the information found in the commentary; "JAG: An Inside Look," a nice overview piece; and "The Military Accuracy," an interesting piece which includes comments from the military advisors. Not the worst special features I've seen (and at least they tried), but for a show with a ten year history, not the best by any means.
In 2005, JAG officially ended its ten year run. Yep, ten years. That's quite an achievement and it proves that there's a lot of good here. Sadly, I think the good is in the later seasons and not in this one. If you're a fan of military shows, you'll love the jargon laden posturing of JAG. But if you're looking for a good lawyer show, I'm not sure this is it. Unless you're a die hard fan of the show, rent it or wait for Catherine Bell to show up in the second season on DVD.
This court finds JAG to be schizophrenic. The show will be carefully observed to see if this tendency can be controlled in the coming seasons.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary on the "Pilot" by creator/writer/director/executive producer Donald P. Bellisario
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