New legal drama "The Defenders" should be outlawed

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - It started as a documentary. It was pitched as a reality series but became a scripted series about a couple of Las Vegas lawyers and their mostly nondescript clients.

Although titled “The Defenders,” there is no mistaking this stubbornly and unaccountably bland legal show for the bold CBS series of the 1960s with the same name. That series, which starred E.G. Marshall and a pre-“Brady Bunch” Robert Reed, was sharp and provocative where this one feels shallow and forced.

The new “Defenders” stars James Belushi and Jerry O’Connell as Nick Morelli and Pete Kaczmarek, respectively, characters modeled after real-life Vegas lawyers Michael Cristalli and Marc Saggese, respectively.

Joe and Harry Gantz, documentarians best known for HBO’s “Taxicab Confessions,” spent 22 days filming the real lawyers, all the while thinking they were making a reality-show pilot. Now the Gantzes are executive producers on the series, part of a team that includes showrunner Greg Walker and “CSI” executive producer Carol Mendelsohn, a veteran at making Los Angeles look like Las Vegas.

If the names of the real lawyers sound familiar, give credit to CBS: Back-to-back episodes of ‘48 Hours Mystery” on Saturday were devoted to cases involving the pair, starting with Cristalli’s defense of the two-timing girlfriend accused of murdering casino owner Ted Binion.

Stories in “Defenders” are based on cases handled by Cristalli and Saggese, albeit with varying degrees of dramatic license. In the pilot, Nick and Pete defend a man charged with murder. They argue, as their counterparts did in 2007, that he fired the fatal shot as a warning to stop several men from pummeling his brother.

Creators/executive producers Kevin Kennedy and Niels Mueller want us to believe Nick and Pete are flamboyant, rule-bending, unconventional and, like the giant billboard that shows them putting up their dukes, much larger than life. But it’s just not convincing.

There is little in the direction of Davis Guggenheim (also an executive producer) or the demeanor of Belushi and O’Connell -- and even less in their chemistry -- to support that characterization. Belushi still has the crankies from his lengthy tenure on “According to Jim”; O’Connell, perhaps gun-shy after failed comedies “Do Not Disturb” and “Carpoolers,” needs to let loose. Except for a couple of clever court antics, these guys scarcely resemble the scrappy and passionate lawyers looking out from the billboard. If anything, Pete is more passionate about blackjack and bedding women. Nick, though legally separated, mostly is obsessed by thoughts of his wife dating other men. Combined, the whole is less than the sum of the parts.

In a botched effort to inject color, the supporting cast includes new associate Lisa Tyler (Jurnee Smollett), who worked her way through law school as a stripper. Yet, apart from lame taunts from a prosecutor (“No lap dancing for the jurors; it could be contempt”), Tyler might just as well have supported herself as a church youth counselor. Maybe, on second thought, this really should have been a reality series.