Ellen Gray: 'Outlaw' breaks the rules on believable plots

Posted: September 15, 2010

OUTLAW. 10 tonight, Channel 10. Moves to regular 10 p.m. Friday time slot this week.

JIMMY SMITS has made me believe in some pretty out-there public servants.

There was Matt Santos, the Barack Obama-like senator on "The West Wing" whose campaign for president proved eerily prescient.

And Miguel Prado, the rogue assistant D.A. who spent some time on "Dexter" and found a way to use TV's most sympathetic serial killer for his own ends, before meeting his own end.

Looking back, even "NYPD Blue's" Bobby Simone had his tough-to-swallow moments.

Yet until now, I've bought Smits in every one of these roles, and even in the short-lived "Cane," which positioned him to become the Tony Soprano of the sugar industry.

So when I say Cyrus Garza, the conservative Supreme Court justice-turned-crusader we meet tonight in NBC's "Outlaw," proved too tough a sell, know I'm speaking as a Smits fan.

Anyone can make a mistake.

Playing someone who quits the high court to fight for the little guy? That's a particularly silly one.

I expect more from the small screen than I do from the big one, and "Outlaw" is as absurdly plotted as too many movies, providing the basis for some two-hour ride that moves along fast enough to keep viewers from noticing the trucks whizzing through holes in the story.

You need more than that for a weekly series. You need characters you can believe in.

We meet Justice Garza, the conservative son of a liberal activist father, when one of his law clerks shows up to pry him out of a casino so he can be the deciding vote on a death-penalty case in Pennsylvania.

For reasons that aren't entirely clear but we're led to believe have something to do with guilt over his father's recent death, he resists pressures to rule the way he normally would have and decides to reinvestigate the case with the help of a sassy young private investigator (Carly Pope) who likes to hack into government computers.

After deciding, in the final hours before the prisoner is to be executed, that the man deserves a new trial, Garza rules accordingly and promptly quits the court so he can roam the country, former clerks in tow, using his Goliath-like reputation to side with Davids of all kinds.

Starting, of course, with the Death Row inmate (RZA) who got him moving in the first place and provided the opportunity to set the pilot in Philadelphia.

Can I just say the city looks wonderful?

Garza, a gambler and a playboy who says he's "pushing 50" (he doesn't say from which side), is meant to be politically incorrect and at least mildly tortured - think "House" as a lawyer - but is largely unconvincing. Little wonder that his worshipful female law clerk (Ellen Woglom) takes it for flirting.

Not that it's all banter and upsetting the established order. There's also a conspiracy afoot, and people are following Garza around. Maybe it's those guys from AMC's "Rubicon"? Unless the second episode, which airs this week in the show's regular time slot, is considerably better, it certainly won't be me.

NBC, which has precious few hits it can use to launch new ones, is giving "Outlaw" a shot tonight following the finale of "America's Got Talent" before shipping it off to Fridays, where by next week, its competition will include CBS' "Blue Bloods," starring Tom Selleck as the head of the New York police department and setting the stage for a Battle of the Network Hotties (Adult Division).

Hate to say it, but my money's on Selleck.

It's 'Sunny' again on FX

"It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" stars Rob McElhenney and Kaitlin Olson became the parents of a son earlier this month, but as the FX comedy returns tomorrow night at 10 for its sixth season, Olson's obvious pregnancy isn't being addressed, at least not directly, as "Mac Fights Gay Marriage" instead.

Don't worry - this isn't the kind of show that makes its expectant actresses stand behind a couch for most of a season or travel everywhere with an oversized handbag, and later this season, the Oct. 28 episode, "Who Got Dee Pregnant?" will break new ground for the handling of an on-screen pregnancy, which until now may not have come as far as I'd thought since the days when "I Love Lucy" wasn't allowed to say "pregnant."

But at least Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz had some sweet clips to show their son, Desi Jr.

Earlier this summer, I asked Olson and McElhenney - separately - how old their son should be before he sees the tartier "Who Got Dee Pregnant?"

"Let's see - you know, at least 2 1/2 so he can understand language, right?" joked Olson. "I just feel like it's going to help us teach the baby good values. So we'll probably have that going instead of 'Baby Einstein.' "

"I would say 25," said her husband, the St. Joe's Prep grad.

"These are absolutely things that we need to discuss," he added. "But we can meet in the middle somewhere." *

Send e-mail to graye@phillynews.com.

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