Friday, August 29, 2008
PTR On Set: 'Raising the Bar' w/Two Points of View
PTR Senior Staff Writer
It’s not every day you sit down next to one of the greatest television producers of all time and have him tell you about his latest project.
Or why he has chosen the cable medium as his newest playground.
Then again, everyone is moving to cable these days, aren’t they?
After all, that is where it’s at.
And TNT knows it the best.
Enter their newest drama, Raising the Bar, which premieres this coming Monday, September 1st at 10 p.m., and is brought to us by Steven Bochco – who I’ll just call Mr. NYPD Blue and Mr. Hill Street Blues for now.
Enter their newest drama, Raising the Bar, which premieres this coming Monday, September 1st at 10 p.m., and is brought to us by Steven Bochco – who I’ll just call Mr. NYPD Blue and Mr. Hill Street Blues for now. As the title of the show suggest, Raising the Bar is no cop show. Rather, it delves into a new realm of legal dramas: telling the story from the prosecutor and public defenders point of view.
“We started with the idea that we wanted to do a show about a busted criminal justice system not just from a public defender’s point of view, but also from a prosecutor’s point of view,” says executive producer Bochco. “All of them are functioning in a deeply flawed environment. The most passionate and committed of them are not only trying to win cases and defend clients, but they’re also trying to maintain, change and support a system which, flawed as it is, is the only one we’ve got.”
Raising the Bar comes to us at a time when cable television is firing on all cylinders. It has become the place to find top quality, character driven dramas. When PTR had the chance to visit with the cast on set back in June, before they had wrapped their first season, they already sensed they were onto something that had yet to be done either on network or cable television.
“It’s the kind of show where you get to root for the underdog,” says Currie Graham, who plays prosecutor Nick Balco. “You see these people that society has sort of forgotten about – the people who have to have a public defender, the people the system really doesn’t give a care about anymore, the bottom 10%. We’re taking a magnifying glass, shining it on this system that forgets about these people and saying, hey, look what really happens. Does anyone know what really goes on here? To see the sort of manipulating, and the strategizing and the dealmaking that happens around people’s lives is kind of frightening.”
Adding Raising the Bar to TNT’s ever-growing slate of quality original programming was a good fit for both the cable network and Bochco.
“It seems to me that there's been a real shift in broadcast television away from the kinds of shows that I like to do,” says Bochco. “For me to continue to do the kinds of shows that are not fantastical – they're not about superheroes, or vampires,or guys that live 800 years – requires that I do [it] in the cable world, which I'm happy to do because it's a very, very respectful environment from a creative point of view. Nobody's looking over your shoulder, nobody's micromanaging you. Everyone is so respectful.”
“There’s a feeling that we’re doing what we want to do,” says Mark-Paul Gosselaar, who plays public defender Jerry Kellerman and of whom also worked with Bochco on NYPD Blue. “I think the best part [of this experience] is getting the same feeling I got with Steven working with him on NYPD Blue - that feeling of confidence about the work we’re doing.”
The show is loosely based upon the book, Indefensible, by David Feige, who also serves as supervising producer on the show.
“I was a public defender for about a dozen years [in New York City] – first in Brooklyn, then in Harlem, then in the Bronx. I left and wrote this book [and] Steven was the only person in Hollywood I sent it to. And, to my amazement, he called and said, ‘I love the book but I don’t think there’s a show here.’” Feige recalls with a laugh. “So, I hung up the phone thinking, you know, Steven Bochco liked my book, the rest is gravy. I’m fine. Good. I’m done.”
“He then writes me a five page e-mail – ” Bochco says.
“ – telling him why he was wrong,” Feige jokes.
“ – telling me why I was wrong. So, I said to my wife, read this – this crazy guy is so passionate about what he’s doing. That’s who we should be in business with – passionate people. So, I re-contacted him and basically said, ‘I don’t want to do [the book per se], but if you want to do [it a little differently], let’s go.’”
And they did.
So what do the creators feel sets the show apart from other legal drams – past or present?
“In the current landscape of television, I don’t think there’s a real character-driven, realistic, law drama. It’s been a long time since there’s been anything like that on television, and I don’t remember ever seeing a law drama that really sort of gave equal time to both sides of the equation the way we do,” Bochco says.
Adds Feige: “Steven’s explanation to me was you don’t have real drama until you have a clash of legitimate world views. And so, we have an incredibly powerful defender voice, which Mark-Paul carries as beautifully as I could have imagined. We also have incredibly powerful prosecutors, who really believe their point of view, and in the contrast is the drama and gist of the show.”
But Gosselaar wasn’t initially sold on the idea of playing a public defender.
“I’ve always played strong characters,” says Gosselaar. “But when I first viewed Jerry on the page, I thought he was really an underdog – a weak character. Everything I’d ever seen on television was through the eyes of a prosecutor, through the eyes of a cop. So, to me, playing a public defender who was always losing, fighting for poor people, engine clients, didn’t really appeal to me right off the bat. But in having read David’s book, seeing the struggle that he goes through, seeing what kind of strength of person it takes to be a public defender, I began to see the challenge in [playing Jerry]. That’s sort of when it opened my eyes, and I was able to read the script from a different perspective.”
Jane Kaczmarek, best known for her work on the Emmy®-winning TV series Malcolm in the Middle, portrays Judge Judy Kessler. She also wasn’t necessarily looking to return to television, but the appeal of working on a Bochco show was pretty strong.
“To be quite honest, I really wanted to work on a show that would allow me to work only a little bit,” Kaczmarek says with a laugh. “After Malcolm went of the air, offers I would get were mostly for comedies, which I really didn’t want to do again. I got so much out of my system doing Malcolm, and it was a long run. Also, I have three little kids, and I was really looking for a life where my primary focus was going to be my family, my kids. I waited until a job came a long that was really going to suit my lifestyle – and by that I mean I could work, I could be on an interesting show yet not be the lead. I had worked with Steven 25 years ago on Hill Street Blues, and I liked that. I think Bochco brings in a certain old-fashioned storytelling – and I mean that complimentarily – in that it’s nice to know about the people trying these cases, and it’s nice to know their back stories. I also used to play a lot of lawyers for many years, then I did a lot of comedy. So, it was kind of interesting to come back to this side of the bench. And I think the character of Trudy is pretty fascinating.”
On being asked about Judge Kessler being a hard core, hard hitting kind of character, Kaczmarek doesn’t see it quite that way.
“Well, in the same way, I never found anything that Lois did on Malcolm that out of the ordinary. [Trudy] is following the letter of the law; it’s just her interpretation of the law. So, there’s nothing she’s doing that’s really illegal. In the pilot episode, the character of Charlie Salansky [played by Jonathan Scarfe] really servers to temper her and make her think differently about certain things.
“Also, the difference between the legal system and what we think is the legal system is completely [a result of] watching lawyers on television,” Kaczmarek continues. “You kind of think lawyers act the way they do on television shows. They don’t. If you actually see real lawyers in action, what happens in a court room is so different than what we’ve gotten used to [seeing]. It’s slow moving, they’re often unprepared, they can be very tedious. They can be badly dressed, badly coiffed. I’m amazed when you see real lawyers – being on jury duty and things. You think, ‘Don’t you watch Law & Order? Dress up! Be prepared!’”
All joking aside, the entire ensemble cast feels as if they’ve been given a great opportunity to work on a Bochco series.
“I think Steven is so good at casting that you know what you’re going to do when you’re get the job,” says Graham. “Once he’s sees people, he knows what you’re going to bring to it, and he lets you go and do your thing. I think he has a great knack for overseeing the big picture, picking the right components and pieces that make it work.”
As for his character, Graham says it has been a fun challenge to play, of all things, a misogynist.
“It’s the first time I have played what I believe is a misogynist,” Graham says. “It’s not in a malicious way, it’s not in a mean way. He likes women, and he’s not afraid to compliment them in perhaps an inappropriate manner, not afraid to manipulate them into going out on dates with him, but also not afraid to tell them they’re not as good at their job because they are women. Also, I think this character has an opportunity to be very funny, especially for a guy who is somewhat morally ambiguous. He’s kind of on the edge of being ethically challenged, and yet at the same time, he’s funny. I think this character – aside from the misogyny, because I’m happily married – was kind of written for me. I think there’s a part of him that is me – the sense of humor, the sarcasm. For me, I put on an Armani suit, step behind the desk, and that’s the guy, man. And the words are good. The writing has been very smart, very intelligent.”
J. August Richards, who plays prosecutor Marcus McGrath, also feels very fortunate to be in the Bochco fold.
“I’ve found that when you work with people like [this], the level of confidence is such that they hire you and let you do your thing. They don’t second guess and triple guess, or micromanage you. It’s just a certain confidence,” says Richards.
But Richards told us of the challenge in taking on a character quite different from himself.
“This character is very moved by victims,” says Richards. “And what did strike me about reading the script was that I had to read it with, like, these sunglasses on because the script is from the point of view of the PDs – the public defenders. They are the heroes, they are very passionate about how the system doesn’t work for people. Now, as a prosecutor, I have to be very passionate about victims and victim’s rights, and those are the glasses I have to put on when I read the script so that I don’t hate my character [given I might not agree with that point of view]. I just have to think about that mother that comes to my office and says my son was viciously beaten, and I can’t feel sorry for the guy for being in jail for a year, waiting for his trial. I think about people who suffer from violent crimes, and that’s what makes me feel righteous about what I do. Marcus really relates to the victim, and there’s a lot of clashing between my character and the public defenders. This has been a very interesting character for me because, politically and personally, we are so incredibly different. This guy grew up in a trying situation, he comes from Harlem, he’s seen a lot, and he kind of has an agenda with what he’s seen and what he’s been through. I’m the exact opposite. It’s been fun to get to know this guy – really walk in those shoes and really see the world through his point of view because mine is so different.”
ER alum Gloria Reuben takes on the role of Rosalind "Roz" Whitman, who runs the office of public defenders. “I’m trying to run the ship without letting too many people jump overboard,” she told us. But her primary reason for heading back to small screen was the opportunity to be a part of the TNT family, and to portray a strong woman.
“I think that you can see that TNT has taken the lead in creating really great roles for women on television,” says Reuben. “And I think, quite frankly, cable television is the place where interesting stuff is happening – film noir television. It’s exciting to be a part of that process, I think there still needs to be a lot done for ethnic women and women of color. But, things are changing, and the roles are getting better, and shows like this - which have great female roles - always kind of inspire other shows to be developed with that kind of strength behind it. Not to mention the chemistry of this cast is out of this world.”
Melissa Sagemiller plays Michelle Ernhardt, an assistant District Attorney in the Manhattan office and of whom has a love/hate relationship with Gosselaar’s Jerry Kellerman.
“I’m incredibly driven and I will pretty much do whatever it takes to win cases,” says Sagemiller. “I have this sort of extreme desire to please someone. So, I tow the line between what is morally and ethically correct, and what is legal. I struggle with that throughout the series. She’s a spitfire.”
Natalia Cigliuti plays Roberta “Bobbi” Gilardi, a public defender transferred from Brooklyn office to the Manhattan office who clashes with Sagemiller’s character.
“She’s starting to get close with the Jerry character, but she’s married, so that’ll stop her. But, she’s very passionate about her clients, and she believes in them and for them and fights for them. Melissa’s character and I have out little tit-for-tat, which we’ve had a lot of fun with it,” says Cigliuti.
Teddy Sears plays public defender Richard Patrick Woolsley IV. As you might guess from the rather formal name of the character, Richard is taking the road somewhat less traveled after enjoying a well-to-do upbringing.
“Richard comes from a very well-healed background and is looking to work in the public defenders office. He’s stepping away from the very large shadow that his family and his father have cast, and striking out on his own, and just fighting diligently and passionately and committedly for the people who he feels are underrepresented and underserved. And all of the fun stuff that comes with it helps mold this unfolding maturation that this character is experiencing,” says Sears.
The cast remain ever enthusiastic about how the first season has been laid out, and they can only hope they’ll be able to come back for a second season to continue the work.
“I think that this show is right for this time,” says Gosselaar.
“And I don’t think you need to be a liberal or a radical or anything to look at this system and say something is seriously wrong [with our system]," adds Bochco. "I just hope that we get a chance to keep going because I think we have a lot of stories to tell with a great bunch of characters that can sustain us for a long time.”
Our great thanks to the cast of Raising the Bar for taking some time to share their thoughts on the show as well as our friends at Turner publicity.Tune in for the series premiere of Raising the Bar Monday, September 1st at 10 p.m. on TNT. For more information on the series, be sure to check out the show's Official Web Site.