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"Pilot," "LAPD Blue," "Dr. Feelbad," "Russo," "In the Grasp," "Fashion Police," "Deja Vu All Over Again," "Love Triangle," "Dial M for Monica," "Sins of the Mother," "The Wrath of Khan," "Wayne's World," "Teacher's Pet," "Starlet Fever," "Here Comes the Judge," "Blind Trust," "Backfire," "Trial by Fire," "Porn Free," "Fall from Grace," "Strange Bedfellows," "Wayne's World 2: Revenge of the Shark"
by Ian Pugh The latest in a long line of television series to track the exploits of a douchebag-genius-misanthrope, "Shark" has a distinct leg up on progenitor "House" and the rest of the competition in its hiring of an undisputed master of such characters to lead the way. In a pantheon of pure indulgence, casting James Woods as the eponymous fast-talking asshole ranks up there with letting Nicolas Cage unleash his inner lunatic--and "Shark" certainly gives Woods a chance to go to town as famous defense attorney-turned-high-profile prosecutor Sebastian Stark. The actor almost completely embodies the pleasures to be found in the show, to such an overwhelming degree that his near-perpetual "step aside, junior" demeanour leaks through the fourth wall, simultaneously wowing the viewing audience and putting pretenders like Hugh Laurie firmly in their place.
Although Woods successfully precludes any animosity towards the title character (the same can't be said for Emily Deschanel in the literally anti-intellectual "Bones"), by the same token the series can't really challenge Stark in any meaningful way because his courtroom philosophy (to wit: "Trial is war, second place is death"; "Truth is relative, pick one that works"; "In a jury trial, there are only twelve opinions that matter") brings undeniable results, and his tactical personality cannot be so radically called into question as to distract from his talents as a lawyer. Stark argues that defense attorneys have an advantage because they're charged with manipulating the law to fit the parameters of the case rather than the other way around, but by transplanting this man and his skill set from a private law firm into the Los Angeles D.A.'s office, isn't "Shark" merely arguing that the same ethos should be applied to prosecution? The show aims to throw Stark a bone of redemption after he successfully defends a domestic abuser who later kills his wife--thus there can be no question that, as a prosecutor, he will eventually find the real criminals and send them to the slammer, immediately rationalizing any legal shenanigans in the process. It's less interested in exploring the ethics of practicing law than it is in reassuring us that justice will prevail. Reasonable doubt is the refuge of the guilty.
Unfortunately, Woods's fantastic performance also prevents "Shark" from moving too far beyond a certain level of comfort, and instead of serving to inspire the show's scribes it seems to encourage an overall slackness in the writing, particularly where the "B" stories are concerned. While forcing Stark to make amends with estranged daughter Julie (Danielle Panabaker) allows Woods to demonstrate his range, the arc itself is best described as something of a bell curve: the genuine emotional conflicts that crop up when Julie is arrested on a DUI (1.15, "Here Comes the Judge") are sadly bookended by literal and figurative pop-folk mawkishness during the rest of the series. Meanwhile, the members of Stark's young, inexperienced legal team have personalities so slight as to merge into a big, bland mechanism that exists solely to bring Stark into the courtroom as quickly as possible. Even when "Shark" posits a shake-up in the cast, it can't bother to care too much; it takes a lot of guts to abruptly kill off one of Stark's underlings in an episode entitled "The Wrath of Khan" (1.11), but there's barely a corresponding "Search for Spock," so to speak. Any lingering repercussions from the character's death are pushed aside in favour of furnishing Stark with a Moriarty in the form of Wayne Callison (an unsettling Billy Campbell), a serial killer who beats the rap by twisting the law in his own psychotic way (1.12, "Wayne's World").
Stark gets the last laugh in the season finale (1.22, "Wayne's World 2: Revenge of the Shark"), wherein he finally nabs Callison by orchestrating the post-mortem of a suicide victim to match the killer's M.O. Though it would be easy to let it all slide on the basis of "an eye for an eye" level of satisfaction, or perhaps, thanks to Woods's likeable intensity, a "you got served" kiss-off--that's just the problem. The episode completes "Shark"'s unintentionally disturbing cycle, happily chronicling the manipulation of the legal process from the protection of "bad guys" to the contentment of "good guys" and practically wondering aloud why we let attorneys defend criminals in the first place. Of course, since no one can argue with the imprisonment of a man whom everyone knows is a killer, it could be said that shows like "Shark", "CSI", and "Law & Order" merely offer a sense of wish-fulfillment to those frustrated by the failings of the law. But as media coverage of the literally insane O.J. Simpson's latest legal trouble has been most concerned with vindicating disbelief in the questionable verdict of his murder trial, how is this wish-fulfillment creeping into real-life acceptance? It wasn't until I looked into another James Woods property that I fully realized what effect modern-day cop shows and courtroom dramas have had on the popular opinion of justice: in the new millennium, when Max Renn embraces the new flesh, he is rewarded with a clean conscience.
With television apparently the medium to suffer the least from Fox's screener-distribution habits, "Shark: Season One" arrived on FFC's doorstep in a retail pull that replaces only the sixth and final disc with a DVD-R. As found on those first five discs, the 1.78:1, 16x9-enhanced image is excellent, if perhaps a little too dark on occasion. The Dolby 5.1 audio is pretty good, too, although bass is sometimes excessive--a few scenes in "LAPD Blue" (1.2) are borderline unbearable. Woods and "Shark" creator Ian Biederman lodge a commentary on both "Pilot" (1.1, directed by Spike Lee) and "Wayne's World"; Biederman is pleasantly chatty, explaining the ins and outs of the show's creation, while Woods demonstrates the incredible amount of thought he invested in researching a role for which he barely needed to prepare. Disc Six contains the paltry special features: "Creating 'Shark'" (20 mins.), a painfully standard making-of doc that does its part by admitting to (as well as feeding into) the show's will-o'-the-wisp perspective of the courtroom; and a better-than-average "Gag Reel" (7 mins.), which brightened my day with Woods and Jeri Ryan (who plays Stark's boss, the district attorney proper) responding to flubbed lines with self-deprecation, casual wit, and a stream of curse words. Did I mention that I really, really like Woods? Capping things off is a gaggle of deleted scenes that were evidently chopped for time. Originally published: November 19, 2007.