If you’re interested in watching The Whole Truth, the new ABC legal drama (Wednesdays, 10 p.m. EDT), you might want to tune in tonight. It may not last long.
The show is on life-support after debuting to an anemic total of 4.8 million viewers. It might last a little while, since it’s from Jerry Bruckheimer Productions, the makers of the successful CSI franchise and numerous other hit shows but also several unsuccessful series in recent years (such as Miami Medical and The Forgotten), but the lack of audience excitement (a C+ in USA Today‘s audience poll) suggests it’s going to be a tough slog.
The show is certainly not bad, just not particularly compelling. Its biggest flaw appears to be the lack of any particularly likable characters among the leads. The latter seems an odd choice, especially given that there’s nothing in the concept to suggest the central characters couldn’t have had some charm, and the performers chosen to play them have a history of decent audience appeal.
The concept is not only workable but in fact rather smart. It’s a legal show depicting both sides of a trial, as the prosecuor and defense both preapare their cases and then present them–to the jury and the TV audience. I can’t think of any specific instances offhand, but I imagine that this has been done before in a TV series, yet so has everything else. Thus it’s what the producers do with the concept that counts.
Their choice is to take a generally somber tone. Rob Morrow and Maura Tierney star as a defense lawyer and prosecutor, respectively, who were lovers during their law school days. The two remain friends but are somewhat antagonist in their personal relationship as well as in their opposing courtroom work. Tierney’s character seems to carry some special resentment toward Morrow’s, though her exact complaint was not made evident in the pilot.
With this rather unpleasant relationship as a backdrop, the pilot episode includes the expected controversial content in the legal case: a high school teacher is accused of having raped and killed one of his students. Ethnic tensions are brought out, as the accused is a non-Hispanic Caucasian and the victim is a Hispanic female.
An early scene skillfully conveys the agony of the murder victim’s family and the worries and fears of the accused and his family. Bringing the ethnic tensions to the fore, hardnosed, determined prosecutor Kathryn Peale (Tierney) pursues the case as a hate crime on the basis of a student’s claim that the accused once said he hates “Spics.” Confident, resourceful defense attorney James T. Brogan (Morrow) explores every possible way of undermining the prosecution’s case, as is the convention in such situations.
The story then becomes a murder mystery in which the clues are uncovered through the simultaneous separate investigations by both the prosecution and defense as they build their cases–a very promising concept, as noted earlier.
All of this is distinctly reminiscent of the numerous contemporary UK TV crime series in which gloomy people confront dismal situations. Visually The Whole Truth has the dingy look common among contemporary U.S. crime shows, and it also involves the usual surprise revelations, cliched competitive banter between prosecutor and defense lawyer, arguments and competition within the legal teams, an open homosexual among the main characters, a wise African-American as authority figure, and other such overly worn conventions of the genre.
On the plus side, although the ethnic and gender angles are exploited as ways to spice up the story, they also present a fairly realistic look at how these issues affect political and social behavior.
As the story plays out, the prosecutor and defense attorney function in the classic role of mystery fiction detectives, and their summations before the jury at the end of the trial function as a pair of competing solutions offered at the traditional Gathering of the Suspects that’s a staple of the genre. The jury’s decision functions as the revelation of the murderer, though an astute person might still harbor doubts. Hence the writers include a coda indicating whether the jury got it right. I think it’s a good idea.
It’s one of many good ideas in the series, starting with the show’s basic concept. If the series can survive long enough for the producers to correct its unnecessarily dreary tone, The Whole Truth might just make it.
That verdict, however, may already have been determined by the initial audience reaction to the show, as the broadcast TV networks are highly reluctant to give a series a chance to find its way and connect with audiences. And that’s the sad truth about TV these days.