In the 1980s, I found Steven Bochco's Hill Street Blues authentic and compelling. But I watched an episode on Hulu.com the other day and couldn't believe how cartoonish it looked in retrospect. Maybe that's inevitable for a 20-year-old series, but I feel the same way about Bochco's new lawyer show, Raising the Bar (Monday, 9 p.m., TNT).
The title's dumb pun is the first sign of trouble. Then we meet the characters. I think Bochco wants us to get caught up in the real-seeming conflict among public defenders, prosecutors, judges and defendants. Instead, we laugh at the made-for-TV torment.
In the pilot, an earnest public defender with rock-star hair (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) is convinced of his client's innocence on a rape charge. God forbid he would just roll up his sleeves and get to work. Instead, he speechifies endlessly about Justice and Truth. Bochco beats us over the head with this guy's integrity, to the point where he goes to jail himself for making a scene during his client's trial. "I'd rather be in jail with Calvin than free and part of a system that put him there!" he bellows over the soundtrack's inspirational music.
If the stab at drama is bad, the stab at humor is even worse. Jane Kaczmarek chews scenery as an over-the-top judge. Michelle (Melissa Sagemiller), a beautiful young prosecutor, turns the tables on her sexually harassing boss by coming on to him like a whore in heat, right there in the district attorney's office. "Do you think you can satisfy me?" she coos, undoing his belt. "Okay, then, let's go - right here, right now." Boy, if I had a nickel for every time that strategy thwarted harassment in a real workplace.
Just because Michelle uses her body for sexual pranks doesn't mean she can't make pretty speeches too. "The truth should never be an embarrassment to this office!" she screams.
The truth proves to be an embarrassment to the once-impressive Steven Bochco: Raising the Bar is a disaster.
Friday, 5 am-3 am (TCM)
Marlon Brando is the reason that, long ago, I got excited about images on a small screen. Late-night TV airings of Brando films like On the Waterfront and Julius Caesar were among my first experiences of pity and terror. I'd whip up a bowl of instant pudding and watch Brando uncover layers of the human heart I didn't even know existed.
And now, here are my old favorites again, grouped together for TCM's all-day Brando festival. Is it possible to buy instant pudding in bulk?
Real Time with Bill Maher
Friday, 10 pm (HBO)
Wry political humorist Bill Maher returns for a new season just in time to comment on Jesse Jackson, who wants to cut off Barack Obama's "nuts"; and Paris Hilton, who's suddenly an issue in the presidential campaign.
With comedy pickings this easy, you'd think Maher would feel guilty accepting a paycheck.
High Heel Confidential
Saturday, 10 am (WE tv)
According to WE, Americans have a problem. We're obsessed with shoes. This special explores the $50 billion-a-year industry that has caused us so many unhealthy thoughts.
But a weird thing happened to me by the end of High Heel Confidential. The loving close-ups of shiny soles and sleek uppers, along with the "rare and exclusive interviews" with top shoe designers like Manolo Blahnik, made me even more obsessed with shoes, not less. Damn you, WE!
Republican National Convention
The Republican Party is a disaster area, but the GOP hopes to change all that with its four-day convention. On Sept. 1, the serious momentum-building will begin for electoral victory in November. On that day, President Bush and Vice President Cheney will kick things off with a speech about Republican achievements during their two terms in office.
Hmmm. Perhaps the serious momentum-building will have to begin on Sept. 2.
The Principal's Office
Thursday, 8 pm (truTV)
This series promises to take us BEHIND CLOSED DOORS at real high school principals' offices around the country. We'll be privy to never-before-seen footage of principals confronting student wrongdoers and meting out punishment.
As tantalizing as that sounds, The Principal's Office doesn't exactly blow your mind. We see a principal reprimand a student for poking a classmate with a pencil. Another one busts a kid who tries to leave the school grounds for lunch. Who knew things were so boring BEHIND CLOSED DOORS?
On the other hand, it is kind of shocking to see supposedly respectable principals preening for the camera. You sense that they'll do anything to amp up the show's entertainment value. One of them asks a student pervert to demonstrate the sexual moves he used to disrupt a class. "Would you mind showing me again what you were doing with your nipples?" he says.
The student doesn't mind, but something tells me the school board might after the episode airs.