Rookie Judge Clark Douglas ain't afraid of no sharks.
Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the courtroom.
After watching the much-publicized trials of O.J. Simpson and Robert Blake, television writer/producer Ian Biederman began to grow frustrated with the idea that anyone could get with anything if they had a lawyer sneaky enough to create just enough reasonable doubt. He began to wonder what it would be like if the prosecution had someone like that on their side, someone who would be willing to step outside the lines of the legal system to get a conviction. These thoughts served as the foundation for Shark: Season One, the CBS legal drama starring James Woods. Does the show deliver the bite promised in its title, or is this just another ho-hum legal show? Let's examine the case.
Facts of the Case
Sebastian Stark (James Woods) is a highly successful and very corrupt Los Angeles defense attorney. Stark is hated by many groups of people, not least of all the L.A.P.D., because he specializes in getting wealthy criminals off the hook. His behavior has earned him the nickname "Shark," a name he claims to dislike but seems to have a secret fondness for. However, when one of Stark's recently acquitted clients kills a young woman, Stark has a change of heart. At the urging of the mayor (Carlos Gomez), Stark accepts a job working for the District Attorney's office, using his questionable tactics on the very people he used to defend. Stark's life is tossed even more upside-down when his 16-year-old daughter (Danielle Panabaker) decides to stay with her father when Stark's ex-wife decides to move to New York.
Twenty-two episodes are spread across six discs like so:
• "Pilot": Ruthless defense attorney Sebastian Stark takes a job with the Los Angeles D.A.'s high-profile crime unit, where he leads a team of fledgling prosecutors (Sophina Brown, Sarah Carter, Samuel Page, and Alexis Cruz) through a scandalous murder trial.
• "L.A.P.D. Blue": Stark's past comes back to haunt him as he receives scant cooperation from the police in prosecuting the killer of an undercover narcotics detective.
• "Dr. Feelbad": In spite of the lack of tangible evidence, Stark is convinced that a prominent heart surgeon has killed his missing wife.
• "Russo": A high-profile private investigator is the prime suspect when a couple is shot to death in Malibu. Meanwhile, Julie's schoolwork suffers as she tries to help a boy she likes.
• "In the Grasp": While prosecuting three college football players accused of raping a female student, Stark must scramble when he learns that one of the players was in a relationship with the victim.
• "Fashion Police": When workers are killed in a sweatshop fire, Stark and his team take on the major fashion company that may be liable.
• "Déjà vu All Over Again": The kidnap and murder of an eight-year-old girl dredges up a strikingly similar case from Stark's past. Meanwhile, Julie meets a young man with a surprising link to her mother.
• "Love Triangle": Racial tension runs high when a sixteen-year-old black girl, a classmate of Julie's, is killed in a hit-and-run in a wealthy white neighborhood.
• "Dial M for Monica": A married assistant district attorney is gunned down alongside a high-priced prostitute with connections to a dangerous drug dealer, and a convoluted investigation ensues.
• "Sins of the Mother": A married socialite claims that the murder of her ex-con lover was in self-defense, and Stark is speechless when Julie stays overnight with her boyfriend.
• "The Wrath of Khan": Casey is taken hostage when Stark goes after a wealthy arms broker in an attempt to get deadly C-4 explosives off the streets of L.A.
• "Wayne's World": A traumatized victim is reluctant to testify when a suspected serial killer insists on acting as his own attorney.
• "Teacher's Pet": The wife and son of a billionaire real estate developer are the main suspects when the man is gunned down in his mansion. On the home front, Stark hires a bodyguard for Julie to protect her from a serial killer.
• "Starlet Fever": Stark prosecutes the glitzy case of a Hollywood starlet who, after a night of clubbing, is killed when her car is run off the road.
• "Here Comes the Judge": There's no love lost when Stark goes after an old nemesis, a judge whose wife was murdered in an apparent robbery attempt. Meanwhile, Julie prepares to say farewell to Neal.
• "Blind Trust": Stark reluctantly agrees to help an old friend who is harboring a dead body, but he soon regrets the decision. Julie, meanwhile, must tell her dad that she's been arrested for drunk driving.
• "Backfire": Stark is skeptical and goes on the offensive when two policemen claim self-defense in the controversial shooting of an upstanding black teenager.
• "Trial by Fire": Hoping to have his conviction reversed, a convicted armed robber takes a courtroom hostage in the midst of another trial.
• "Porn Free": Stark finds himself in a precarious situation when he prosecutes the head of a woman's shelter, a woman being dubbed a hero by the media for killing a sleazy pornographer.
• "Fall from Grace": Stark faces a former protégée in the case of a professor who was pushed from a balcony to his death—possibly as punishment for excessive gambling debts.
• "Strange Bedfellows": An eleven-year-old boy missing for four years is found living contentedly as the "son" of his abductor, who claims that he was protecting the boy from abusive parents…
• "Wayne's World 2: Revenge of the Shark": Acquitted serial killer Wayne Callison is accused of murdering yet another young woman, and this time Stark won't let him get away…or will he?
As a legal show, Shark is only modestly entertaining, but it's very effective and sometimes terrific as a character study. Sebastian Stark is a magnetic human being, and his willingness to cross moral lines for the sake of getting the job done add a great deal of complexity to the character and the show. At first, the direction of Stark's life seems a little more obvious…as the early episodes of the season progress, Stark grows warmer and friendlier and nobler, to the point that we worry he will be just another squeaky-clean lawyer by the season finale. Not to worry. Particularly in the second half of the season, Stark's actions go so far over the line at times that we find it a little difficult to sympathize with him, even if he is doing the wrong thing for the right reason. The superb season finale features a particularly startling scene that makes us wonder just how accurately we've judged Stark over the course of the season.
The primary strength of Shark: Season One, without question, is the presence of James Woods in the title role. There are few other actors who could have played this particular role so convincingly. Woods nails the role of Sebastian Stark, but it can't have been too terribly hard…the part seems tailor-made for Woods' personality. Woods manages to keep his energy level high throughout the entire series, and constantly keeps episodes snapping along when they threaten to start dragging. An episode here and there may seem predictable and mundane, but Woods never plays down to any scene, so the show is never unwatchable or boring.
As fun as Woods is during the immensely engaging scenes of ranting and raving at a jury, a judge, or his colleagues, his best scenes may very well be the understated moments with his 16-year-old daughter Julie. The relationship between Stark and Julie adds a very tender element to the show, and brings some nice human dimensions to a show that could run the risk from time to time of being too caught up in (admittedly compelling) legal machinations. Danielle Panabaker is very good as Julie, creating a very believable and three-dimensional character. The writers also do a good job of keeping the father/daughter relationship from taking predictable turns.
Another notable member of the supporting cast is Jeri Ryan, who plays the district attorney. Despite the fact that she doesn't get quite enough screen time, she brings a convincing professionalism to her role, and her many confrontational scenes with Stark are particularly fun. A handful of strong supporting turns are peppered throughout the series, most notably Billy Campbell's chilling performance as serial killer Wayne Campbell (the episodes are cutely titled "Wayne's World" and "Wayne's World 2: Revenge of the Shark"). Ray Wise has a nice role as a smarmy lawyer in one episode, and William Forsythe is excellent as a corrupt private investigator in "Russo."
Spike Lee directed the pilot episode, and the simple, classical style that Lee brings to that episode defines the look and feel of the show for the first few episodes. However, as the season progresses, the look and feel continue to change. Episodes start sprinkling in more slo-mo shots, and frequent flashbacks to crimes being discussed in that particular episode. The show's title card changes multiple times throughout the season, each one simply the word "Shark" placed in front of a different shot of downtown L.A. A couple of episodes break the tone completely, becoming action-packed thrillers instead of legal dramas. The most successful of these is "Trial by Fire," a snappy and intense episode about a convicted man holding Stark and others hostage inside a courtroom in an attempt to get his sentence changed. There's a very vivid color palette, particularly later in the season, as the show takes all over Los Angeles…sometimes for specific scenes, sometimes just in bridging shots. By the season's conclusion, you feel like you've taken a very impressive tour of the city. However, the numerous crime flashback scenes are presented in a very shaky, grainy manner with desaturated colors and home video quality cinematography. While this is certainly intentional, it's a little typical and annoying. The Dolby Surround 5.1 audio is just fine, though Sean Callery's ("24") episode scores are unfortunately generic.
There's a moderate amount of extras here, most of which are presented on disc six. First up is a twenty-minute making-of featurette, which is actually not too bad and features some rather interesting comments from the cast and crew. A six-minute gag reel has some funny moments, and fifteen minutes of deleted scenes are mostly dull, though I did find one scene between Stark and the Mayor from the season finale to be pretty interesting. The best extras by far are the commentaries from James Woods and Ian Biederman. If you've never heard a Woods commentary, you're in for a pleasant surprise, and if you have…well, you know how good they are. Woods is a really fascinating actor with a lot of passion and intelligence, and supplies an endless array of compelling thoughts on the show and some of its themes. Biederman is reasonably engaging as well, but he's mostly content to sit back and let Woods control the proceedings…a wise move.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Despite the strong presence of Woods, Panabaker, and Ryan, the young and pretty cast that plays Stark's legal team are the show's biggest liability. None of them are particularly interesting, yet they get more screen time than either Panabaker or Ryan in most episodes. Sophina Brown fares the best as a particularly compassionate member of the team, but the rest seem a little too anonymous, a little too young, and a little too pretty. You get the sense that the series is trying to compensate for the fact that the lead actor is sixty years old.
Also, for every positive improvement that the show makes over the course of the first season, there's usually an equally negative change. For instance, while the "Trial by Fire" episode is a good example of a break from the regular format, "The Wrath of Khan" breaks form in a similar manner and feels very tacky, particularly in the way it deals with a surprising plot development in the series. The crime flashback sequences are annoying and obvious, and we can usually be sure that they're only there to add an extra bit of shock and cheap drama to the very talky show.
Finally, the writing seems a bit obvious during many episodes, particularly in terms of the plot twists in the cases Stark is working on. There is almost always something that happens about midway through the episode that forces Stark and his team to change their entire strategy and approach the case from an entirely different angle. Once a viewer is well into the series, they may begin to sit uncomfortably through the early moments of an episode, waiting for the REAL facts to unfold and replace the phony ones. And, as well as the dialogue is delivered by Woods, it's occasionally a little clunky. Especially Stark's primary mantra: "Trial is war. Second place is death."
Despite some notable caveats, Shark: Season One is still a compelling and worthwhile legal drama with a little bit more edge than your average courtroom show. That edge is mostly provided by the ever-fascinating James Woods. The producers of Shark talked about wanting to get "a James Woods type" to play the lead role, and how fortunate they were to get James Woods himself to play the part. We're lucky too, because it's been nearly ten years since Woods has had a leading role in a feature film. Hollywood has been feeding Woods generally uninteresting bit roles for quite some time now, so it's great to see him get a meaty role like this that he can really chew on. For the average viewer, it's a decent show, but for Woods fans, it's absolutely a must-see.
Several witnesses can testify to Sebastian Stark tampering with the evidence, harassing the defense, and using suspicious means to sway the jury. However, all that is irrelevant, as the judge has been bribed. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
• Two Episodes Commentaries featuring James Woods and Series Creator Ian Biederman
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