Sebastian 'the Shark' Stark is L.A.'s hotshot criminal lawyer, who can save even the worst violent scum from conviction by a jury, for an obscene fortune. When wife-beater Gordie Brock he got off is arrested for murdering that same spouse Deena six days later, expecting the Shark to save his bacon again, he finds himself infected with some conscience and stops his profit-driven practice. Now mayor Manuel Delgado seizes his chance to convince Stark to join the underfunded prosecutor's office, which never stood a chance against him, and help justice rather then the rich. District Attorney Jessica 'Jess' Devlin, whom he knows to be far below his class talent-wise, becomes his new boss. He already knows from his private files all the inexperienced by-the-book lawyers he gets assigned as assistants, such as senator Woodland's son Casey, and starts teaching them how to use, even bend the system. Their first case in only 48 hours, is star singer Jenny Dennison, who murdered Terence 'Terry' ... Written by
"It's the legal drama version of House.". That sentence has been used by several critics and advertisers to summarize Shark, based on a single thing both shows have in common: the protagonist is an absolute pain in the ass. Any similarities end there, though: Sebastian Stark (James Woods), the incarnation of everything that's wrong in the legal business, is almost completely different from Gregory House, and the pilot sets to point that out as clearly as possible.
First and foremost, Stark is no (prescription) drug addict, his only "high" deriving from always winning in court. Until a man he got acquitted for wife-beating actually kills the missus, plunging the arrogant defense lawyer into a premature mid-life crisis and prompting him to accept a job in the DA's office. Secondly, he may have unorthodox methods, as the second rule of his "cutthroat manifesto" states ("Truth is relative. Pick one that works."), but he does care for other human beings, most notably his teenage daughter Julie (Danielle Panabaker), who spends the entire episode deciding which of her parents will be her legal guardian (Stark's ex-wife is leaving L.A.). Finally, he is convinced switching sides might open up a path toward redemption, and that thought is what really distances him from TV's most cynical and beloved physician. Okay, so he occasionally brutalizes his staff verbally, but that sort of comes with the job, doesn't it?
Actually, there is something else Shark shares with House: both serials are all about the leading man. The script is packed with excellent dialogue and the supporting cast is very good (especially Jeri Ryan as Stark's reluctant boss and Sarah Carter as his most loyal staffer), but from the first minutes of the pilot it is obvious the show belongs to Woods: doing what he has always done best (see his scene-stealing role in Clint Eastwood's True Crime), he throws out the meatiest lines ("Your job is to win. Justice is God's problem.") with a conviction so strong some could think he actually worked as a lawyer in the past.
And yet there are a few things that don't work as well as they should have: why have Spike Lee direct the pilot if he doesn't have anything personal to bring? I have nothing against famous directors working on TV shows (Tarantino's CSI two-parter, for example, might even be the best episode of that series), but there has to be something that identifies that filmmaker's contribution; aside from the top-spot acting, it is hard to understand why Lee bothered being involved in a project that looks nothing like one of his "joints". Furthermore, the family subplot is handled well, without slipping into sickly sentimentality, but it slows down the second half of the pilot, robbing Woods of the screen-time he deserves in the trial sequences. What he does in those scenes, however, is riveting enough to forgive the uneven pace.
So, is this show worth your time? Uh... yes. The format is familiar, but the central performance makes it more than the House rip-off it sounds like.
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