Made In Jersey debuts tonight on CBS at 9 p.m. Eastern.
Todd VanDerWerff: Made In Jersey makes constant use of the sort of reveal The Simpsons mocked in their “Treehouse Of Horror” takeoff on the famous Twilight Zone episode “To Serve Man.” Kang and Kodos have arrived on Earth to bring humans to their planet and a garden of delights. Suspicious, Lisa finds a cookbook on their ship, one named How To Cook Humans. Through a long series of reveals, in which more and more dust is blown off the cover of the book, the characters first find the book is called How To Cook For Humans, then How To Cook Forty Humans, and finally How To Cook For Forty Humans. It’s a good gag, both because it effortlessly undercuts the episode it’s mocking but also because it makes fun of a certain type of storytelling reversal. One character says or does something that so obviously marks them as guilty that there’s no way it could be interpreted some other way… and then a completely different, innocent, implausible take on it is offered. That one, of course, turns out to be the correct one.
Made In Jersey does this throughout its pilot. The hour centers on the suspect in a murder case, a college girl said to have had an affair with her professor that ended in her killing him with a blunt object to the head. She, of course, says that she’s not only innocent, but she also never had an affair with the professor. She’s just a nice girl who had a chance to go to college and took it, all the better for the protagonist (whom that situation could describe as well) to sympathize with her. At the end of one act, the characters learn that the girl left an angry message for the professor in which she said she wouldn’t be left, that she would be respected. And right away, in the very next scene after the commercial break, she says that she meant it about how he tried to duck out of being her tutor. Right.
If this were the only problem with Made In Jersey, it might not be fatal. The show has a good cast, and it’s shot in the CBS house style, which is usually somewhat appealing. (If nothing else, this show uses brighter colors and tones than some of the network’s other shows.) Plus, it’s a legal procedural, and while that’s not a huge endorsement, it’s at least not yet another cop drama from the network that built an empire out of them. But Made In Jersey has problems upon problems. It’s the worst non-CW drama pilot of the season, and that’s because it seemingly goes out of its way to dive headlong into clichés whenever it can. The abuse of any one of these clichés would have been a problem. The abuse of all of them all of the time grows wearying.
At the center of Made In Jersey is a young woman named Martina, a New Jersey native who’s gone through law school and gotten a job at a prestigious New York law firm with a bunch of upper-class snobs who don’t understand that her earthy, working-class wisdom is better than anything they could have come up with. Throughout the pilot, Martina proves herself to be the only person at the firm capable of relating to other human beings on any level whatsoever, possessed of secret knowledge that those who are her bosses wouldn’t have because they haven’t “lived life” like she has, and able to make sure that others from her own class—like her client—will look good enough to “pass” in the courtroom. She is, in short, a sort of class war paladin, able to move among people of all walks of life and always do the right thing at the right time. She’s, frankly, incredibly irritating, and that’s before we get to the giant clown car full of stereotypes that is her giant, Jersey family.
What’s really unfortunate about this is that the actress playing Martina—Janet Montgomery—is surprisingly winning, even when the series is asking her to do stupid things. CBS appears to have largely picked this up on the thought that Montgomery, who’s been in lots of stuff in her native United Kingdom, could be a big TV star. The network is probably right about that, but this series, which intentionally pitches Martina as just a bit abrasive, probably isn’t the right one to exploit her talents. Montgomery is best in the moments in which she’s sympathizing with her client, not when she’s trying to prove that a girl from a loving blue-collar family can make it in a white-collar world, but the pilot highlights the latter far more often than the former. It’s a cliché trap that the story keeps forcing itself into, especially once the twists start piling on top of each other, and the reversals keep coming, and the story is growing more and more implausible.
The rest of the cast seems to mostly be there to either stand in opposition to Martina or to back her up without question, because they can understand her wisdom. Kyle MacLachlan plays one of Martina’s bosses, Donovan Stark, and he’s mostly just playing “the Kyle MacLachlan” part here, though he’s also clearly impressed and moved by Martina’s spunk, like Lou Grant with better hair. Meanwhile, there’s another of Martina’s superiors, Stephanie March’s Natalie, who’s there to serve as the garden-variety opposition who will eventually come to realize that Martina’s got what it takes over the course of the first season. Toni Trucks is here as Cyndi, a fellow junior employee who knows that whatever Martina’s up to is going to be worth it, a one-woman cheering section for the heroine. These are all standard types, and the pilot doesn’t bother to suggest they’ll ever be anything but. Hell, it doesn’t really bother to express that Martina is anything but exactly what she seems to be, spending inordinate amounts of time underlining just how “tough” she is, right down to making one of the final lines of dialogue in the pilot about that very thing.
But by far the worst material here stems from Martina’s family, the big, loud, enthusiastic sort of Italian family that seems to exist only in films and on TV shows. The family scenes are meant to be the heartwarming ballast to the over-the-top dramatics of the courtroom scenes. Yet every single one of these scenes plays like an improv comedy troupe doing a riff on an episode of The Sopranos. The show mistakes broad, broad stereotypes for character work, and by the time Martina is discovering the crucial pieces of evidence that will solve the case thanks to spending a little time with her giant family, most viewers will be realizing just how many times they’ve seen this sort of thing before.
Made In Jersey seems to have made it to the air almost entirely because of CBS’ affection for Janet Montgomery and the network’s realization that Jersey Shore was a “thing” at some point in time. CBS’ dominance in the ratings has come from programming the sorts of unadventurous programming that most of America craves, yes, but it’s also a network that’s fairly good about having its finger on the hot trends and things its audience might be into. It’s usually good about coming up with things that feel at once timeless and current, and it’s usually good at executing them ruthlessly, so they rarely rise above the level of a B but rarely sink below a C. It’s a network pitched directly at a wide, demographic middle that wants to see things about The Way People Live Today that, nevertheless, don’t dig too deep into that dynamic. In the end, what’s most surprising about Made In Jersey is how thoroughly it feels like it was left over from something pitched in the year 2009, and as much as any other problem with the show, that proves fatal.
Noel Murray: What must the network notes have been like during the development of Made In Jersey? Judging by this thick-lined cartoon of a pilot episode, it appears CBS kept firing one word back at creator Dana Calvo: “Jersey-er.” Is the heroine’s hair big enough? No, pump up the pouf. Is her family Jersey enough? No, put the brother in a Devils jersey and set a scene in a beauty salon. Is there a way to make Martina stand out more at work? Yes, make her third-chair on a case being handled by a prissy blonde snob. Make sure the audience understands that this girl is different. Totally out there. Like a… like a Jersey girl at a Manhattan law firm. Doesn’t that sound wild?
Look, it’s not like some stereotypes don’t have basis in reality; and it’s not like television should steer clear of those stereotypes entirely. It would be terrible if everyone on TV were devoid of all ethnic or regional traits, or if those traits were uniformly positive. But Made In Jersey is hardly ethnography. It’s entirely possible that Calvo and everyone else working on this show are New Jersey born, bred, and rooted; but none of that comes across on the screen. Instead, Made In Jersey plays like someone at CBS accidentally sat on his or her remote and jumped over to Jersey Shore while watching The Good Wife. Even the decision to cast a British actress as the lead is indicative of this show’s decision to play “Jersey” from the outside-in.
None of this would be a deal-breaker if at least the legal procedural elements of Made In Jersey were smart enough. But this pilot is like an episode of Info-Dump Theater, in which Martina learns the facts of the case by interviewing—and sometimes just stumbling across—people who tell her exactly what she needs to know. And while Martina clearly has a sharp mind, too much of her success in the pilot is based on coincidence. Martina’s niece just happens to overhear what turns out to be an important clue. Martina herself just happens to notice a hair-care product that holds the key to the case. This isn’t the heroine scrutinizing crime scenes and seeing what others miss; this is just dumb luck, and it happens over and over.
There is, possibly, a salvageable series here. The acting’s good, the tone is likably bright, and any show that gives weekly screen-time to Kyle MacLachlan and Donna Murphy (who plays Martina’s mother) has the potential to be awesome, if only for a few minutes an episode. Plus, the premise isn’t completely insulting. If the idea here is that a diversity of experience leads to a diversity of perspectives, which leads to innovative ways to solve problems, well, that’s a worthwhile message to promote.
But there are ways to transmit that message that don’t involve pretending that the world of a high-powered New York law firm and a working-class New Jersey family are so crazily different. New York City’s a big place, with lots of different kinds of people. Chances are, a Manhattan lawyer has encountered someone from New Jersey before, and has done so without immediately making a comment about how tacky her accessories look. More to the point, chances are that a woman who went to law school, worked in the Trenton District Attorney’s office, and impressed a New York firm enough for them to poach her, is a woman who would understand what’s expected of her in terms of how to dress and how to behave. Made In Jersey mistakes “doesn’t know how anything about proper business attire” with “proud of where I come from.” And this from a heroine who’s primary skill is supposed to be her keen powers of observation. Yeesh.