Excuse me, what were you saying? Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger just noticed Lt. Col. MacKenzie walking by.
"If this is what being a lawyer is all about, you can have it because being a lawyer sucks!"—Bud
Donald P. Bellisario is no stranger to hit TV. Renowned for such beloved shows as Magnum, P.I., Airwolf, and my personal favorite cult television hit Tales of the Gold Monkey, Bellisario has his finger on the pulse of campy action TV. JAG incorporated many of Bellisario's favorite themes, and ran for an astonishing ten seasons. Does this add up to television magic or a ho-hum potboiler?
Facts of the Case
Cmdr. Harmon 'Harm' Rabb, Jr. (David James Elliott, The Untouchables) is a heroic fighter pilot cum lawyer who investigates and/or defends people accused of Naval crimes. The line is kinda blurry…more often than not Harm finds himself pinned down by a spray of bullets, leaping out of Marine Corps attack helicopters to pursue wayward patriots threatening the sanctity of American freedom.
He is joined in these escapades by a Marine lawyer cum adventurer named Lt. Col. Sarah 'Mac' MacKenzie (Catherine Bell, Bruce Almighty). When she's not trying to disguise the sinful curves beneath her impossibly tight uniform, Mac is busy standing up to Harm's testosterone-driven (yet deep down, sensitive) antics. Her equivalent rank gives her an autonomy that her predecessor Lt. Meg Austin did not enjoy. Together, and with the help of assistant Lt. Cmdr. Bud Roberts, Jr. (Patrick Labyorteaux, Little House on the Prairie) and Adm. Albert Jethro 'A.J.' Chegwidden (John M. Jackson, The Glimmer Man), Harm and Mac untarnish the legal honor of our nation's Armed Forces.
Season Two takes us on these merry adventures:
Television doesn't get any campier than Tales of the Gold Monkey, but the show has a rabid cult fan base. Magnum, P.I. made Tom Selleck a household name—or was it the other way around? And Airwolf was stuffed to the brim with pseudo-military hocus pocus. None of these shows would be confused with enduring classics, but they were enjoyable in spite of their badness. JAG seamlessly fits into this parade of corn, fast cars, sexiness, and action.
Nevertheless, Judge Cynthia Boris had it right when she said this about Season One: "I love NCIS which was created by the same team, so I assumed I'd like this show too. That wasn't the case." Maybe JAG's earnest military bearing turned me off, or perhaps it was the slow pacing, cornball acting, trite dialogue, or predictable plots. In any case, watching JAG was like being hooked up to a IV drip of molasses: between long bouts of minor discomfort come syrupy does of dialogue and/or pulse-quickening shots of Catherine Bell. JAG isn't unlikable, per se, it just isn't memorable.
That's a vague statement, so let's pin it down. One of the better episodes in this season, "Full Engagement," pits an off-duty Harm and Mac against murderous poachers in the Appalachians. (Spoilers follow, by the way.) This trio of criminals wants our favorite Judge Advocate Generals out of the way. Harm and Mac have no means of transportation, no weapons, and no means of communication. Yet the poachers fire long range shots at the two, giving them plenty of time to duck, run away, or pluck spare parts out of a Jeep to fix Harm's plane. At no point do the poachers simply walk up and shoot them point blank like dogs. These are the worst hunters I've ever seen. There's even a scene where Harm is framed directly in a bullseye with his back turned. How can you miss that shot?
So we have a classic "hare and hounds" episode here. Three poachers (in other words, guys who make their living hiding in the mountains and tracking game) are hunting our heroes down. That doesn't stop Harm from stopping in the woods to deliver a long soliloquy about his father and grandfather. It doesn't stop Mac from lighting a roaring fire. I guess I'm saying that JAG has no semblance of logic or realism. This makes it unmemorable, because there is no clever twist or real tension to stick in the mind. After the first volley of wayward bullets, I tucked the poachers into the "incompetent, faceless villains" category and promptly forgot them.
This same vibe applies to the show in general. It's as though JAG lifted A Few Good Men's smarmy military trappings and Top Gun's fixation with military hardware, but forgot to appropriate the edginess and tension that made those movies work.
The good news is that if you love the show, this set has much to recommend it. The sound and video are crisp and clear. "Setting Sail on Season 2" is an extensive peek behind the scenes, with reminiscings from the whole cast and crew. "Inside the Real JAG Corps" has a high fluff factor, but it also features actual JAG lawyers who poke gentle fun at the show while explaining how JAG impacted their real life work. The commentaries feature lots of dead air, particularly Bell's commentary for "We the People," but fans will glean many rewarding tidbits.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Catherine Bell looks good in her uniform. By that, I mean she single-handedly redefines the "woman in uniform" fantasy. From what I gather, David James Elliott fares well in that department, too.
Cleverly integrated footage gives the show authenticity, such as the Forrest Gump-like inclusion of Bill Clinton and stock footage from big budget military flicks.
Camp is one thing, but generic melodrama is another entirely. JAG had a good run, but I don't get what the fuss was all about. Nevertheless, if you like the show, this set should please you because of its decent extras and polished audio-visual quality.
JAG is ordered to stand down.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Cast and Crew
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