Hollywood just can’t take the Las Vegas Tourism Board at its word that what happens in Sin City is supposed to remain there.
Quite the contrary, movies and TVs have done little to dissuade audiences from the notion that not only does what happens in Vegas most certainly translate well outside of Vegas, but it’s also bigger, flashier and zanier than what happens any other place on Earth (especially Laughlin).
It isn’t just that Las Vegas has the best options for bachelor parties and dead hooker burying — though that’s certainly true. But in recent years, TV has educated us that Las Vegas also has the best murders (“CSI”), the best medical cases (“dr. vegas”) and now, thanks to CBS’ “The Defenders,” it’s making its case for having the best legal altercations. And trust me, if I had my way, Vegas would also be the home to HitFix’s second best TV writer, because I love me some Vegas.
I know people who hate Las Vegas — Communists, Satanists and Vegans for the most part — but you can’t deny the basic supposition: Vegas is a good backdrop for drama, at least in theory. In execution? Well, that’s where things get sticky. There’s a reason “CSI” has aired over 225 episodes (and counting), while “dr. vegas” aired five episodes.
Will “The Defenders” be another “CSI” or another “dr. vegas”? That’s a hard question for me to answer, especially since I kind liked “dr. vegas.” I mean, Rob Lowe, Amy Adams and Tom Sizemore? What wasn’t to like, America? What. Wasn’t. To. Like?
[Full review of “The Defenders” after the break…]
“The Defenders” stars Jim Belushi and Jerry O’Connell as Nick Morelli and Pete Kaczmarek, a pair of high profile defense attorneys trying to make it big in Sin City. They’re willing to take on virtually any sort of case and Las Vegas appears to have cases of any sort, some splashy and tawdry and some just as ripped from the headlines as what you’d probably get on any other legal procedural.
Although both men are natives, they approach Las Vegas in different ways. Pete appears to like the glitz, glamour and conquest opportunities of The Strip, while Nick is going about fixing his decaying marriage in all the wrong ways. Outside of the courtroom they’re both a little messed up, but inside the courtroom, they’re dogged pursuers of justice, or something of the sort.
“The Defenders” isn’t a big ensemble, but the cast also features Jurnee Smollett as one of those sassy young attorneys who stripped her way through law school. Yes, by “one of those” I mean that her character is a bit of a lame cliche. And then you have Tanya Fischer as the firm’s quirky secretary/assistant. The pilot also features Natalie Zea and Stephen Root in very appealing guest turns that I hope will be reprised in the future.
The show’s creative team has made the slightly odd choice to launch “The Defenders” with what his actually a very run-of-the-mill not-very-Vegasy case in what felt to me like an Episode Three or Four move. You know, after you prove what Pete and Nick can do on sexy and eccentric Vegas cases, then you change gears and show that they’re every bit as capable of handling a legitimate case using the same courtroom theatrics. Or perhaps my sense of ideal strategy is wrong and “The Defenders” is being smart in premiering with the sort of case that could just as easily have been used for “Outlaw” or “The Whole Truth”? Saying, “If this is how they handle a case with a man’s life on the line, guess how they’ll handle porn stars and crazy annulled marriages”?
“The Defenders” is a procedural with a healthy grounding in character, which helps when you have a case as unremarkable as the one in the premiere. The show probably needs to embrace the comedy side of its dramedy roots, because the legal grandstanding would play a bit better if we weren’t supposed to take it seriously and could just accept it as good, heightened fun. You aren’t going to watch “The Defenders” for its nuanced depiction of the legal system, though. That’s not how the show is advertising itself. If you’re looking for that? Try “The Whole Truth,” even if it’s only so-so.
No, you’re going to watch “The Defenders” because you’re able to set aside your ingrained distaste for Belushi and O’Connell to realize that both actors have, occasionally, been funny and charismatic and that Belushi has even been known to be effectively dramatic at times. No. I’m serious. Go watch “Salvador” or even “The Ghost Writer.”
And as annoying as I know I’ve found Belushi and O’Connell in the past, they’re both admirably likable here. O’Connell isn’t straying far from his fast-talking over-grown frat boy persona, but the writing seems to reel in some of his hammier, muggier tendencies (despite also giving him a hammy, muggy character). And Belushi is just solid, proving appropriately bombastic in the courtroom scenes and not unsympathetic in his sentimental moments.
I’ll say it without hesitation: Jim Belushi is good in “Defenders” and Jerry O’Connell doesn’t make you want to knee him in the groin.
[For the supporting characters, Fischer has a loopy charm and I’ve liked Smollett in a lot of things in the past, so I’m willing to ignore how strident and broad her pilot performance is.]
The pilot’s third character is Las Vegas itself, as “The Defenders” got really tangible use out of shooting on location, capturing both The Strip, but also less conventionally photographed aspects of the city. Heck, you can practically feel the desert heat. Unfortunately, the role of Las Vegas, played by Las Vegas in the pilot, has been recast with Los Angeles playing the role in subsequent episodes. Plenty of shows have shot LA-for-Vegas, so it’s not that it isn’t possible, just that it isn’t preferred.
Reading back over what I’ve written here, it feels like I may be overrating “The Defenders,” which would give my readers exactly the opposite experience from the one that I had. I went into watching my screener having disliked the preview clips and with genuine trepidation and I can out saying, “You know what? That was pretty OK.” But if I tell you that “The Defenders” is OK, you may start expecting it to be *good* and then come back complaining.
Thus, my bottom line: If you expect “The Defenders” to be awful, “The Defenders” is better than you expect it to be. If you go into “The Defenders” with perfectly neutral expectations? “The Defenders” will fulfill those expectations.
Also check out Sepinwall’s super interview with Mr. Belushi.
“The Defenders” premieres on Wednesday, September 22 at 10 p.m. on CBS.