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Raising the Bar: The Complete First Season - television series DVD / drama DVD / suspense DVD review
Rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America rating: 3 stars
Actors: Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Jane Kaczmarek, Gloria Reuben, Currie Graham, Melissa Sagemiller, Teddy Sears
Producer: Steven Bochco   Distributor: TNT
DVD release: 02 June 2009   Runtime: 430 minutes
(1 disc)
Format: Box set, Color, DVD, NTSC
Features: Aspect ratio 1.78:1, Audio tracks (Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround - English), Subtitles (English SDH, French, Spanish), Behind the Bar: An After-Hours Roundtable with the cast, Sworn Testimony: True Stories of a Public Defender, Mistrials: Bloopers from Season One, Audio commentaries w/ cast and crew

Law-show junkies will get a decent hit off the TNT show Raising the Bar, but that's about it. producer Steven Bochco had a good thing going with this one but needed more than a little bit of help in the casting department. Strong stories, great scripting and solid characters only go so far without a strong leading actor.

Raising the Bar shines a light on the public defender's office, with a bona fide fifteen-year P.D. veteran on the sidelines to help keep it real. Roz (portrayed incredibly well by Gloria Reuben) heads up this little group. They take the "scum bags" of New York City and pledge to give them a solid defense, regardless of their race, creed or crime. These defenders are the first and last chance of justice some of these criminals may ever get - and often, the only ones to actually listen or care about the stories that led them to the courts. The cases they try are often painful to watch, and they do a fabulous job of highlighting the path taken by the defendants. In this show, the personal stories matter, reintroducing qualities that the general public may have forgotten about: compassion and understanding.

The other side of the story is the work of the prosecutors for the State. Their job is to put these people in prison, to make the world a little safer for society at large. Currie Graham as Nick Balco is Roz's counterpart and leads up this team. Melissa Sagemiller and J. August Richards (in a very different role than Angel's Charles Gunn) round out his group with very different temperaments. She is a somewhat na´ve but feisty prosecutor who will do anything to win - even resorting to less than honorable tricks in and out of the courtroom. He is a slightly different kind of idealistic lawyer, believing very strongly in the system to punish the ones who are deserving - which is nearly everyone.

Behind the scenes, outside the courts, they are all college buddies who still drink it up and add the steamy spice that keeps their personal lives interesting. Raising the Bar isn't as crazy with the personal as Ally McBeal was, and it isn't as straight a road as Law & Order. It is definitely a new, unique view of the system, shining a light on other heroes.

Mark-Paul Gosselaar (NYPD Blue and Saved by the Bell), as public defender Jerry Kellerman, is a strange choice for the lead role in what otherwise might be a strong courtroom drama. He says all the right things, shows all the right passion in pleading his cases in front of a jury, but somehow, he still falls short of the mark. He seems hollow. nothing to back up that staged passion. Many of the side characters, or one-time guest stars, come off as more real than he does. He's like a hot air balloon, full and puffed up, looking round and full, but there's just nothing in there.

Gloria Reuben, recently long-time actress on E.R., is easy to buy as a P.D. because she acts with her eyes. Emotion pours out of her, even while she pulls off the tough, professional businesswoman. She is the cornerstone of the success of Raising the Bar. And while Jane Kaczmarek (perhaps best known from Malcolm in the Middle) is an old favorite, her character is so incredibly slanted to one side that they've made her difficult to believe as well - at first. Her character grows through the season and gains in depth. Hers is one of the few. Her law secretary, played by Jonathan Scarfe, is a bit of an enigma. He portrays the man hiding behind a socially acceptable mask just as easily as the man overwrought by personal struggles. Beyond Judge Kessler and Roz, this show has a strong supporting cast, but many of the characters are flawed so much that they are no longer human examples but instead bland standees.

The Steven Bochco name gives it a ring of respectability, but even that isn't quite enough. Every "cool" but badly played card is laid out with poor timing. The odd scene changes leave the viewer feeling drunk. The storylines are truly well-developed but poorly executed. Much of the acting is top-notch, but watching the main character is downright painful and over-the-top dramatic and, sadly, just not quite believable. Luckily, the bonus DVD features are worthwhile, wholly enlightening and entertaining. There is a strong feature with the man who developed the show, director David Feige, who explains how the show came about from his own life as a public defender. The interview with the actors, and their blooper reel, is laughworthy.

Perhaps Raising the Bar will grow up through season two. After all, season one was only given ten shows to make a go of it. Even Mark-Paul Gosselaar might make the role his own. With strong writers and a superbly strong cast behind him, it is easy to take the overall lesson from their stories and root for the underdog - so here's hoping Raising the Bar comes into its own as it progresses.
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reviewed by Carolynn Evans
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