The Defenders debuts tonight on CBS at 10 p.m. Eastern.
The Defenders is not appreciably good. It's not appreciably bad. It's just kind of there, but in a way where its very mediocrity is not somehow offensive. There are things in it that indicate it could develop into a scruffy charmer. There are things in it that indicate it could develop into something boring, as every week devolves into the same thing over and over. It's the epitome of the C+ show, the show that really doesn't have a whole lot going for it but at the same time can't be dismissed as offensively awful. Honestly, there's not that much more to say about it than that, but we're professionals here at TV Club. So we're going to get this done.
The Defenders is, surprisingly for CBS, a dramedy. It's about a duo of lawyers working the seedier side of Las Vegas. They're the guys who advertise themselves on schlocky billboards and specialize in ambulance chasing but are still good at what they do, good enough to be able to afford what appears to be a thriving practice. Now, however, one of their clients wants them to get him off for a murder charge, so they're going to have to dive head first into the world of trial law to get the guy off. As a judge (ably played by the great Stephen Root) observes, these guys are good at certain aspects of the legal process, but at the part where they have to win cases, they're not so good. That their client is staking his life on them seems like a weird show of faith or, perhaps, an admission that he just can't get anyone better. As a setup for a legal drama, it's not bad, but it's nothing you haven't seen a million times before.
What's supposed to set the show apart is the central relationship between the characters played by Jerry O'Connell and Jim Belushi. There's been a lot of talk from many critics about how surprising it is for them to be giving nominally good grades to a show starring these two, but, honestly, neither is a totally repugnant presence when they stretch themselves. Here, the show is asking them to give actual performances, and the two have a nice, believable chemistry. It feels immediately clear that O'Connell and Belushi have worked for years and years together and have certain pre-set rules and rhythms set up. Their dialogue bounces back and forth very well, and when the show lets the two out into the Vegas nightlife, it's usually a highlight. The Defenders has a certain seedy charm to it, and Belushi and O'Connell tap into that vibe perfectly. These roles are right in their limited sweet spots.
The rest of the cast is pretty good, too, and seems completely taken from other, better shows the producers wanted to rub off on this show. Jurnee Smollett (recently playing the object of Landry's affections on Friday Night Lights) turns up, jarringly, as a young associate. She's good at the part, and she, too, has an easy chemistry with both of the lead actors, a chemistry that actually deepens just a bit as the pilot goes on. Natalie Zea is here as well, in a mostly thankless role, but it's nice to see her after Justified rehabilitated her post-Dirty Sexy Money. The smaller roles are all well cast as well, and the many able comic players in the ensemble help keep the light, goofy feeling floating along.
But this isn't content to just be a light, goofy legal dramedy about two lawyers who keep stumbling ass-backwards into wins in cases. This is CBS, and these lawyers need to be competent, dammit. So the show turns, late in the game, into something of a self-improvement narrative: Just how will these two rapscallions turn things around and get their client off the hook for these crimes they're increasingly sure he didn't commit? They handed him such a nice deal on a platter, but he didn't take it. Now, they actually have to do their jobs! But - and here you can see the network wheels turning - what if the client continually refusing to take the deal made these guys BETTER LAWYERS? Or at least started them on the path to it? The dramedy stuff is fitfully amusing and non-offensive as a time waster. The part of the show when it abruptly shifts into a series where the audience is supposed to care for these two guys and their client is completely unconvincing. The tone has been undercutting this idea throughout the episode, and the change into a straightforward legal drama at the very end is just too much.
There's enough good in The Defenders to see how it might have been a much better show, which is what makes its utter averageness even worse. (The same disease afflicts tomorrow's My Generation, an awful show with a good one buried so deep within it that it will almost certainly become a rallying cry for a certain kind of Internet fan.) What if this show was about two lawyers who kept hatching more and more elaborate schemes to get the kid to take the deal, even as they came to think he might be innocent? What if this show had the courage of its scruffy, black comic convictions and toyed around with the idea of being a lawyer to the lowest of the low in Las Vegas? Somewhere in the midst of those ideas, a great show could be found, potentially even a great show with Jerry O'Connell and Jim Belushi in the leads. Instead, we get just another legal drama with some jokes.
One of the big dangers of pilot season is that critics watch so many of these things in such a compressed time frame that they inevitably start to get compared to each other, rather than the grand sweep of television as a whole. This one is better than that one, so this one must be the absolute best. No matter how hard any given critic tries to keep perspective on where these shows fit in opposite Mad Men and Modern Family, there's always a sense that each pilot season occupies one continuum that runs from the very best to the very worst. In a good season, this means that perfectly adequate shows get written off a little too quickly because they're not amazing. In a bad season, this means that perfectly adequate shows get hyped up a little too much because they're at least competent and not abominations.
Something like this is happening with The Defenders, which is debuting to mostly (and shockingly) kind reviews. Again, it's not a bad show, but it's not as good as plenty of critics would want you to believe. It is simply a show that is there, taking up real estate on the television dial. This being a CBS show, it will probably be on for years and years and years, still taking up that space, still essentially repeating the pilot (flaws and all) over and over again, until even those who watch it faithfully will have no idea that it's still on. Sure, this could have been a lot worse. But that doesn't mean it couldn't have been much, much better at the same time.