Judge John Floyd is not really comfortable passing judgment on Donald Bellisario, a show about our armed forces, or the lovely Catherine Bell. Justice, however, must be served!
"Sir, is that Colonel Mackenzie topless?"
JAG returns for a fifth season of aerial dogfights, covert antiterrorist missions, undercover drug busts, and other things that lawyers, military or otherwise, don't do in real life. There are also some court-martials.
Facts of the Case
Donald P. Bellisario (Magnum, P.I., Airwolf, Quantum Leap) hit yet another ratings home run with this romanticized action-drama about Navy and Marine Corps lawyers. True to form, the venerable producer centers his often improbable but usually entertaining tales on two very attractive, very charismatic leads (David James Elliott as Commander Harmon "Harm" Rabb, USN, and Catherine Bell as Lieutenant Colonel Sarah "Mac" MacKenzie, USMC) and an amiable supporting cast, and makes great use of locations and stock footage to create an air of military authenticity. Season Five finds everyone's favorite JAG officers dealing with everything from psychic Admirals to hijacked nuclear subs to witches.
I'm a big fan of Donald P. Bellisario. His shows are always well-made and exciting, his casts of characters are always memorable and enjoyable to have in my living room every week, and his plots (though often very dramatic) are generally lighter and less sleazy than those of other popular prime-time action series. From the short-lived Tales of the Gold Monkey to the current ratings juggernaut N.C.I.S.: Naval Criminal Investigative Service, Bellisario's work as an executive producer represents some of the most enjoyable series television of the last three decades.
That said, JAG is my second least favorite Bellisario creation (my least being the 1992 flop, Tequila and Bonetti).
Maybe it's the show's schizophrenic nature that makes it harder to love than Magnum, P.I. or the implausible but fun Airwolf. JAG is a law drama masquerading as an action series. Its characters are frequently depicted running around with guns drawn, staking out hotbeds of criminal activity, going on commando raids, flying fighter jets, and all manner of things that fall well outside the daily job requirements of military lawyers. Having served in the Marine Corps, I'm somewhat familiar with the Judge Advocate General's office, and it's difficult for me to imagine a scenario in which one of the admin personnel from that office would be asked to help an ex-S.E.A.L. (played by John Diehl) lead a covert assault on a U.S. Army base to test its security. Both the courtroom battles and two-fisted action sequences are well-executed, but there is something incongruous about seeing the same characters handling both. This show is sort of the military equivalent of Law & Order, but doesn't duplicate that program's most important element—separate teams to handle the legwork and the legal stuff, respectively.
The characters on JAG don't seem to mature as quickly as they have on other Bellisario shows, either. By Season Three of N.C.I.S., Michael Weatherly's Anthony DiNozzo had already become a competent, three-dimensional team leader, and probational agent Timothy McGee (Sean Murray, in his second full season) had transformed almost entirely from clumsy newbie to capable field operative. By contrast, junior JAG officer Lt. Commander Bud Roberts (Patrick Labyorteaux) has a wife and child by the time the show hits its fifth year, yet he still comes across as a nervous, wide-eyed new recruit. Similarly, Trevor Goddard's Australian JAG liaison officer, Lt. Commander Mic Brumby, is still basically the same "rough and tumble outback lothario" he was when he joined the show the previous year. It isn't that these actors are bad, or that they don't have their serious and effective dramatic moments; it's just that their characters seem at times a bit broader and less developed than they should be, which makes it a little harder to care about them.
Another frustrating element of this series is that by Season Five, halfway into the run, it is painfully obvious even to the supporting characters that Harm (Elliott) and Mac (Bell) are destined for romantic involvement, yet the writers and producers work overtime to find ways to delay that union. I understand that consummating a much-anticipated relationship on a television series often signals that series' imminent demise, and I'm aware of the narrative convenience of having your leads free to explore short-lived (and invariably ill-fated) romances elsewhere. But who out there in TV Land doesn't get just a bit irritated when two people are, to quote Jason Lee in Mallrats, "retarded for each other" but keep finding excuses not to get together? Maybe I'm just an oversexed male, but I find it even harder to believe that the stunning, curvaceous Bell could look longingly at any single man with her mesmerizing doe eyes and not steal his heart forever than I do to accept that the U.S. Navy's best defense attorney is also its best fighter pilot. Even re-watching just a single season of the series for the purpose of this case, I found myself frequently wanting to smack Elliott on the back of the head, Leroy Jethro Gibbs-style, and tell him to get his head out of his hind end.
JAG certainly isn't a bad show. As noted, Catherine Bell might be one of the sexiest women ever to grace the small screen, and her performance generally rivals her looks. (For those sharing my obviously refined taste in the dramatic arts, take note that Bell does appear in a very skimpy blue bikini—and, with the help of a carefully placed magazine, topless—in the two-parter, "Boomerang.") Elliott, despite his character's aggravating refusal to realize he's won the romantic equivalent of a Powerball lottery jackpot, is extremely agreeable and convincing as the seafaring version of Perry Mason. John M. Jackson is the unsung anchor (no pun intended) of the series as the gruff Admiral Chegwidden. Karri Turner is solid as Lt. Harriet Sims, wife of Lt. Commander Roberts and the only person capable of keeping the JAG office running smoothly. Randy Vasquez acquits himself well in his first season as Gunnery Sergeant Galindez. There are also plenty of recognizable guests, including the aforementioned Diehl, Lochlyn Munro, Everett McGill, Andy Robinson, and country singer Trisha Yearwood.
The stories are engaging and well-paced, but rarely does an episode in this fifth year (or any other season, for that matter) of JAG leave you chomping at the bit to see more of the show. It's a well-acted, scenic, enjoyable diversion, but not the sort of television classic that Bellisario has made a career of producing.
The only extra in this set is a gag reel. It's funny, but the fact that it is the sole bit of bonus material included is further testament to JAG's "good, not great" stature.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
This series has its loyal followers, and they will love this release. Have I also mentioned that Bell is impossibly hot?
I'd love to say this set belongs on your DVD shelf, next to your seasons of Quantum Leap and N.C.I.S., but I can't. Maybe on the next shelf down, between Nash Bridges and Wings?
JAG: The Fifth Season isn't really guilty of anything, except perhaps
offering 25 episodes of a series that anyone except the most devoted fan might
be better off just catching in syndication.
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Scales of Justice
• Gag Reel
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