Outlaw - "Pilot"

Outlaw debuts tonight at 10 p.m. Eastern on NBC, before moving to its regular Fridays at 10 p.m. Eastern timeslot Sept. 24.

Jimmy Smits is a big, giant TV star. He can put over just about any old piece of bullshit, like when he almost singlehandedly made CBS' strange "Dallas with sugar" show Cane watchable. But for the most part, he gets involved with projects that make good use of his talents, whether it's his young, hungry charisma in L.A. Law, his brooding soulfulness in NYPD Blue, or his idealism in The West Wing. Outlaw, perhaps realizing what it has in Smits as its lead, basically just crams all of these shows together in its first two episodes. For the most part, nothing here makes a damn lick of sense, but Smits keeps trying to make the audience believe in it. It's like he's fervently giving a top-notch greenscreen performance, emoting frantically at a bunch of special effects that don't exist. Except in this case, the "things that don't exist" are the rest of the cast, the sets, the scripts, the costumes, and all other production values. Now, if this were actually a show Jimmy Smits performed in his underwear in his bedroom all by himself, providing the voices for a variety of CGI creations, it might be something to see. Sadly, though, it's not.

The problems start early and often in Outlaw. First, a small group attempts to make sure that one of their own doesn't go off to be executed for a crime he didn't commit. How's this going to happen? Well, the guy's lawyer is going to appeal this execution directly to the Supreme Court in an attempt to get a stay. This is a pretty standard legal show setup, but so far, so good. The stakes have been set. A man's life is at stake! From there, though, things wander all over the map, as the show heads to a casino, where Smits' character - Cyrus Garza, evidently named after the pilot's writer spent a lot of time contemplating the strange, Mexican/Celtic influence of Carlos O'Kelly's - is busy gambling, hitting on chicks, and counting cards. See? He's an OUTLAW. He doesn't PLAY BY THE RULES. When he wins, he exclaims, "People say there's no justice!" and it becomes just what kind of a show this is going to be.

See, Cyrus is a Supreme Court justice. And he's the sole remaining vote on whether or not the guy from the opening is going to die. And after he leaves the casino to head back to Washington to issue his decision, the pilot drops us into a torrential downpour of exposition. A little exposition is a necessary thing in a pilot, even a fairly low-concept one, but this pilot way, way, way overdoes it. It apparently has a lot of story to put over, and it feels the need to put every single plot point in the backstory in front of the audience three or four times. So as the pilot continues, the show continually reminds viewers that Cyrus is a.) a rogue, conservative justice (appointed by George W. Bush), b.) the son of a recently deceased, bleeding-heart liberal type who loved his son but thought he was WRONG, man, c.) possibly guilty of several crimes, d.) in the pocket of big corporations, and e.) the decisive vote in any number of Supreme Court decisions in the favor of various corporate and otherwise conservative causes. If the show wants to tell the audience that Cyrus is the most conservative member of the court, the audience will usually believe that fact in a pilot. It doesn't need to hear that, then see Cyrus being appointed by Bush, then see his dad chewing him out for his beliefs in file footage on cable news. Also, there's a scene where one character lays out ALL OF THE ABOVE in the most inept and clunky fashion possible, but the show continues to feel the need to express it all over again.

But Cyrus doesn't just feel guilt over how his relationship with his father was hurt by their differing political beliefs. He also feels guilt over the fact that he was in the car during the crash that took his beloved father's life. And so, after a night of weeping over his dead dad, Cyrus decides to issue the stay the prisoner needs to avoid execution, angering his corporate overlords (who have sworn to impeach him with their knowledge of his possibly criminal activities). And then, because he's just that bad-ass, Cyrus steps down from the Supreme Court. He turns down one of the most prestigious jobs in the country on a whim and decides to become, uh, a small-time defense lawyer. Because whatever dirt the corporate overlords have on Cyrus won't work when he's just a small-time lawyer. Right.

Outlaw's biggest problem - outside of a completely ridiculous premise that it feels the need to explain over and over and over - is the fact that it works so damn hard to be unpredictable. Cyrus is a raging conservative until he's a raging liberal, but in the second episode, he's become a conservative at random again. It's one thing to have a deeply thought out political philosophy that's conservative in some instances, and liberal in others. But whatever's going on with Cyrus seems to be going on simply to suit the convenience of creator John Eisendrath and his writers. Whatever they need him to do to seem the most crazy and unpredictable is what they'll have him do, never mind consistency of character or Cyrus being anything other than a collection of tics. When Cyrus was a hardcore conservative, that idea seemed like it might be interesting - a legal drama with an actual political viewpoint! But when he randomly became a liberal because he was sad, that premise got undercut. And by the second episode, it's gone entirely. The desire to keep the audience guessing makes the show hollow, ultimately.

Outlaw wants desperately to be The Good Wife for this season, but it tries way too damn hard to create a compelling character at its center. There's always room for more compelling legal dramas, but the case that Cyrus takes on in both episodes feels utterly beside the point, as if the producers are only interested in the cases as a means to explore their radical bundle of contradictions. And that's to say nothing of the fact that literally every other character around Cyrus is strictly there to service him and are all so unmemorable (and so unmemorably played) that they fade into the woodwork of those handsome sets. Smits tries his best to keep the show watchable, but he may as well be sitting in his bedroom, shouting in his underwear.

Stray observations:

  • There's a ridiculously awkward confession of love in the pilot. See if you can spot it! (It won't be hard.)
  • In all likelihood, this is the worst drama pilot of the season. Law & Order: Los Angeles and The Whole Truth remain unseen by me, and there are a handful of pilots that have had minor corrections made that I need to rewatch, but it's hard to see anything topping this, even if the producers of Hawaii Five-0 replaced the entire cast with sea anemones.
  • Carly Pope is in this. I remember a time when I liked her.