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"Raising the Bar" The Complete First Season DVD Review

Buy Raising the Bar: The Complete First Season on DVD from Amazon.com Raising the Bar: Season One (2008)
Show & DVD Details

Creators: Steven Bochco, David Feige / Regular Writers: David Feige, Jonathan Abrahams, Alison Cross / Directors: Jesse Bochco, Bobby Roth, Jeannot Szwarc, Eric Laneuville, Chris Long, Carol Banker, Rick Bota, Rick Wallace

Starring Cast: Mark-Paul Gosselaar (Jerry Kellerman), Gloria Reuben (Rosalind Whitman), Currie Graham (Nick Balco), Melissa Sagemiller (Michelle Ernhardt), J. August Richards (Marcus McGrath), Jonathan Scarfe (Charlie Sagansky), Teddy Sears (Richard Patrick Woolsley), Natalia Cigliuti (Bobbi Gilardi), Jane Kaczmarek (Judge Trudy Kessler)

Recurring Characters: Wilson Cruz (Rafael de la Cruz), Heath Freeman (Gavin Dillon), Jon Polito (Judge Dominick Ventimiglia), Jud Tylor (Lisa Landis), Stacy Hall (Vince Culp)

Notable Guest Stars: Charles Malik Whitfield (Calvin Hines), Percy Daggs III (Terrence Fletcher), Brea Grant (Heather Dreeban), David Selby (Richard Patrick Woolsley III), Shane Johnson (Will Cooper), Bresha Webb (Kea Banks), Mel Rodriguez (Bruce Torkelson), Lombardo Boyar (Freddy Valerio), Josh Stewart (Dan Denton), Ashley Johnson (Elise Denton), Page Kennedy (Sherron Nettles), Reno Wilson (Trey Hansen), James Handy (Judge Albert Meade), Tempestt Bledsoe (Camilla Hansen), Matthew John Armstrong (Adam Nolan), Erik Palladino (Brandon Radley), Keith Diamond (Desmond Demming), Sharif Atkins (Andy Hamilton), Magda Harout (Martha Delman)

Running Time: 431 Minutes (10 episodes) / Rating: TV-14
1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen / Dolby Digital 5.1 (English)
Subtitles: English, Spanish, French; Closed Captioned; Extras Subtitled
DVD Release Date: June 2, 2009 / Season 1 Airdates: September 1 - November 3, 2008
Three single-sided discs (2 DVD-9s, 1 DVD-5); Suggested Retail Price: $39.99
Clear Keepcase with Embossed Cardboard Slipcover

Buy from Amazon.com Buy The Complete Second Season

In the TNT drama series "Raising the Bar", Mark-Paul Gosselaar's hair is the longest it's been in fifteen years.
That was the last time he played Zack Morris, the famed protagonist of three TV shows and 2 telemovies, a role he's hardly talked about since his "Saved by the Bell" run ended in 1994. But it's not bleached blonde now, which means he's doing drama, his preferred genre since 1998's college comedy Dead Man on Campus.

"Raising the Bar" is Gosselaar's fifth regular series since "Bell" and though this legal series co-created and executive-produced by Steven Bochco ("Hill Street Blues", "L.A. Law", "NYPD Blue") regularly deals with life and death lawsuits, it's Gosselaar's shoulder-length brunette locks that have gotten the most attention from viewers. That strange fact is less the product of audience superficiality than of the slight substance in Bochco's program. Gosselaar's hair stands out and doubly so because so little else does. It regularly raises the question: what kind of a lawyer goes to bat for clients, expecting to be taken seriously while looking like that?

From the start of "Raising the Bar", public defender Jerry Kellerman fights injustice. To care, you'll have to get past Mark-Paul Gosselaar's long shaggy hairdo. Reuniting with Steven Bochco after more than twenty years, "Malcolm in the Middle" mom Jane Kaczmarek plays Trudy Kessler, a judge who only shows warmth to the man out of focus behind her (Charlie Sagansky), her secret lover with a secret of his own.

The answer appears to be only Jerry Kellerman, a Manhattan public defender as principled as he is shaggy. Kellerman believes in the pursuit of truth and opposes anything that stands in the way of it. While he's aware of courtroom games that must be played, he always holds his non-paying clients' interests first, whining and monologuing as needed. Fulfilling similar duties is Richard Woolsley (Teddy Sears), a colleague who deserves to be nicknamed "Preppy." Despite the clean-cut look and the financial stability it reflects, Woolsley also devoutly believes in his calling. He scoffs at his father's standing invitation to his private firm. Both Jerry and Richard answer to Roz Whitman (Gloria Reuben of early "ER" seasons), a soft-spoken and agreeable boss, largely reduced to infrequent behind-desk sightings. Also in the ranks is Bobbi Gilardi (Natalia Cigliuti), a new hiring from Brooklyn who quickly moves from securing favors to trying cases, all the while providing an unsubtle hint of love interest as the troubles of her marriage become clear.

On the other side are those working out of the district attorney's office. Most prominent is pretty Michelle Ernhardt (Melissa Sagemiller), who's committed to earning first chair assignments. Marcus McGrath (J. August Richards) keeps the sides' numbers even and cast diversity up. Their boss, D.A. Nick Balko (Currie Graham), has soft spots for good press and on-the-job sexual harassment.

In the middle is relentlessly tough judge Trudy Kessler (Jane Kaczmarek, "Malcolm in the Middle"), a woman with a low tolerance for anything other than her perspective and instincts. Trudy has an adoring law clerk in Charlie Sagansky (Jonathan Scarfe). Their relationship isn't limited to chambers, nor are his trysts restricted to ladies.

Though Jerry and Michelle (Melissa Sagemiller) begin the series as secret lovers, the writers quickly move them to a more adversarial relationship. From his "Don't go there" pose here, Mark-Paul Gosselaar seems to agree with the shift. Prosecutors, defenders, law clerks... Despite their workday differences, all come together at the bar for talk and toasts as in this shot from the season's penultimate episode.

The series is more about the law than the lawyers, especially at first. Cases unfold with our sympathy lying with the public defender's office,
its quest to uncover justice for underprivileged underdogs, and the noble but trite idealism that drives them. Redeeming values abound, both in the lawyers and the predominantly black defendants. Even the prosecutors bent on imprisoning those more guilty of circumstance than malice aren't vilified. The same medium which requires a degree of photogenicism in all lawyers is also responsible for playing up legal theatricality over true procedure. While most television series invite occupational sympathy, I get the feeling that real lawyers would be bothered by what's passing for realism. But then, co-creator/producer David Feige spent nearly fifteen years as a New York City public defender and clearly must draw from this substantial experience.

Despite the emphasis on legal processes, there's still some room for sexual liaisons and regular socialization among the often willing to compromise (i.e. settle) opposite sides. Apparently, everyone went to law school together, although that fact is established more in official publicity materials than in watching the show. Nevertheless, it explains why all gather together for drinks and discussion of deals and some pursue relationships without strong ethical consideration.

"Raising the Bar" isn't terrible. I'm not sure the legal drama genre could yield such disappointment without tremendous miscalculation and failings. This series doesn't suffer from those. It simply lacks anything to make it stand out. The forgettable characters are identified by just one trait (gender, principles, demeanor) and even when introducing compelling moral ambiguity, the cases that occupy the cast feel familiar and their resolutions foreseeable. I haven't seen enough of Bochco's shows to fit this into a critical overview of his long, lauded career. But here it seems that the showrunner has lost what it takes to cut it on network television (a medium he's claimed to have moved away due to changing tastes). And yet, there is no edginess or creativity to identify this as being cable fare. With such features, is it any wonder that discussion moves to Zack Morris' new hairstyle?

Speaking of which, the people's complaints have been heard and Gosselaar will rock shorter hair in the new season, which begins airing on June 8th. Six days earlier, production company ABC Studios releases The Complete First Season DVD, holding ten episodes of greasy-haired glory. The episodes are apparently arranged by production order, not TNT's airdates, which only entails swapping Episodes 3 and 4.

Prison bars are no match for a heartfelt handshake from Jerry Kellerman (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) in this shot from the Pilot episode. Shorter-haired public defender Richard Woolsley (Teddy Sears) looks on wistfully as the prosecution questions a witness in "Guatemala Gulfstream." With his regular "timeout" trick not working, Zack Morris tries extending his arms while single-handedly carrying a heavy camera. Sadly, it doesn't work either.

Disc 1

1. Pilot (44:05) (Originally aired September 1, 2008)
Jerry represents an accused rapist he believes was erroneously identified.
Watch a clip from the "Raising the Bar" pilot:
Richard seeks a deal from the D.A.'s office in exchange for testimony against a serial rapist.

2. Guatemala Gulfstream (43:02) (Originally aired September 8, 2008)
Michelle wants a break from Jerry when they go against each other in her first murder trial. The case is complicated by a key witness from Guatemala with an outstanding warrant from 15 years ago. Richard tries an assault case spawned from a high school love triangle.

3. Richie Richer (42:36) (Originally aired September 22, 2008)
Whether it's considered homicide or manslaughter, a case carrying unusual ramifications for the D.A.'s office, the public defenders, and Rosalind prepares for trial with neither side wanting to settle. Jerry represents a mother being coerced to testify in a murder trial.

4. I Will, I'm Will (43:00) (Originally aired September 15, 2008)
Jerry jockeys to get a psychiatric institution bed for a friend/client (guest Shane Johnson) otherwise facing jail time. Richard defends a lady involved in a skirmish while trying to cash a check.

District attorney Nick Balco (Currie Graham) offers the press a resolute sound bite while prosecuting a pedophiliac rapist for murder in "Bagels and Locks." Late 1980s TV teenagers Tempestt Bledsoe (Vanessa Huxtable) and Mark-Paul Gosselaar (Zack Morris) are all grown up in "A Leg to Stand On." Outdoor shots are rare, since LA has to stand in for NYC, but Marcus (J. August Richards) gives us one when he takes his chat with gruff police detectives (Sonny Marinelli, Alex Sol) to the streets.

Disc 2

5. Bagels and Locks (42:59) (Originally aired September 29, 2008)
Against Balco, Jerry defends a man who claims he raped but didn't murder an 8-year-old boy. Bobbi tries to reunite a drug supplier suspect with his new wife.

6. Hang Time (42:58) (Originally aired October 6, 2008)
Bobbi tries to help a poor, young married couple (Josh Stewart, Ashley Johnson) wanting domestic assault charges dropped. Jerry represents a man charged with armed robbery born out of a car accident.

7. A Leg to Stand On (42:59) (Originally aired October 13, 2008)
Jerry's client opts for a bench trial in his mugging case. Bobbi defends an amputee war hero medicating himself with heroin. Richard clicks with a client/neo-burlesque dancer/law student (Jud Tylor).

8. Out on the Roof (42:58) (Originally aired October 20, 2008)
Charlie's secret fling (Wilson Cruz of "My So-Called Life") gets Jerry to handle his drug bust case. Marcus reconsiders making a deal with a teenager accused of robbing a liquor store, suspecting he's a patsy.

Bobbi (Natalia Cigliuti) and Richard (Teddy Sears) offer reassuring head tilts to their young, frightened client in "Roman Holiday." Actors from two different eras of "ER" come together in the season finale, as Roz (Gloria Reuben) represents a disgraced firefighter (Sharif Atkins) in his property theft retrial.

Disc 3

9. Roman Holiday (42:58) (Originally aired October 27, 2008)
Against Michelle and an arrogant co-prosecutor (guest Erik Palladino), Jerry defends an HIV-positive activist charged with spitting at a police officer.
Apple iTunes
Richard and Bobbi represent a 14-year-old boy who will be tried for murder for acting in concert. Facing an Italian vacation with Trudy, Charlie comes out.

10. Shop Till You Drop (42:57) (Originally aired November 3, 2008)
When a decision is reversed and neither side will compromise, Jerry and Roz prepare a retrial for a disgraced firefighter. Richard represents a shopaholic senior in dangerous debt. Judge Kessler re-evaluates her relationship with Charlie. Bobbi is troubled by news about her husband.

VIDEO and AUDIO

Like almost all modern TV dramas, "Raising the Bar" is treated like a feature film to 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen video and Dolby Digital 5.1 sound. Both satisfy, particularly the picture, which delivers the high-contrast visuals with terrific clarity and no evident shortcomings. The audio mixes do nothing to confirm that they're prepared with five distinct channels in mind. But the front-dominated tracks do a fine job of distributing dialogue and music. One oddity which was especially noticeable on a few episodes is a strange audio skip that seems to occur in the utterly brief theme tune. Maybe that's deliberate and edgy?

Co-creator David Feige animatedly discusses the experiences that shaped the series in "True Stories of a Public Defender." No rainbow backdrop is needed to notice the cheery camaraderie of the half-dozen actors appearing in "An After Hours Roundtable with the Cast." Mark-Paul Gosselaar has a laugh in the short Season 1 blooper reel titled "Mistrials."

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS and PACKAGING

A pair of Disc 2 audio commentaries provide different perspectives on the series.

Creators/producers Steven Bochco and David Feige are joined by Bochco's son Jesse, a co-executive producer and occasional director, on their discussion of "Bagels and Locks." The three are unable to sustain a 43-minute talk and spend some of the time throwing praise at the cast, crew, and themselves. They do sound off on the series' look, cable's ability to tackle difficult issues like a pedophiliac client, and some of the logistics and legality depicted.

Seven actors gather together for the "Out on the Roof" commentary: Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Jane Kaczmarek, Currie Graham, Gloria Reuben, Natalia Cigliuti, Teddy Sears, and J. August Richards. Theirs is a far livelier, more laugh-filled track. It's more informative, as the cast shares production tidbits about deleted scenes, extras, and techniques used to make Los Angeles look like Manhattan. It's also much more entertaining, as we get some "Mystery Science Theater 3000"-style riffing and dubbing plus topics of human interest like Gosselaar's hairstyle, Currie's resemblance to Kevin Spacey, actor heights and wardrobe.

Three video extras turn up on Disc 3. Strange in this digital age, each of them is not enhanced for 16:9 displays but letterboxed.

"Sworn Testimony: True Stories of a Public Defender" (13:44) is a standard format making-of that doles out a satisfactory amount of substance. We hear from Feige and Bochco on the project's origins, the use of true stories and real cases stemming from Feige's experiences. The cast discuss the benefit of having Feige on hand to answer questions and all address the series' themes and issues.

"Behind the Bar: An After Hours Roundtable with the Cast" (13:14) rounds up six actors: Sears, Cigliuti, Richards, Gosselaar, Kaczmarek, and Graham. Here, we get to see the levity and rapport heard in the commentary. Among the topics raised are their audition processes, Bochco's "hidden" political stances, their characters and motivations, and the system being dramatized. Group pieces such as this are a welcome alternative to the one-talking-head-at-a-time design that has become the norm.

The extras conclude with "Mistrials: Bloopers from Season One" (1:54). This reel partially arranges its goofs by actor, setting the lot to some jazzy music. It's so tightly edited that we don't get the joke most of the time, but it's too short to mind.

Recurring characters, a guest star, and one and a half leads are seen in Disc 2's Episode Selection menu stills. Disc 3 holds the fullest main menu of the set.

Disc One launches with ads for "Army Wives": The Complete Second Season, Confessions of a Shopaholic, The Proposal, and Cheri. Disc Three loads with a commercial for the new season of "Raising the Bar." The third disc's Sneak Peeks menu holds the Disc 1 trailers plus promos for Blu-ray Disc and SOAPnet.

The menus are just as forgettable as the show itself. Main screens run with a visually muted montage while the rest simply loop instrumental score to static images.

The clear standard-sized keepcase is housed in a redundant cardboard slipcover. Inside, ads for Buena Vista Blu-ray and the second seasons of "Army Wives" and "Raising the Bar" are tucked away between the two sides of discs. When those discs are removed, they reveal the reverse cover artwork provides lists of episodes and bonus features plus some additional still photography.

Joining the cast in the second episode, Natalia Cigliuti ("Saved by the Bell: The New Class") gradually develops as love interest to her fellow Bayside High alumnus. Hope Kelly doesn't find out! Jerry and Michelle (Melissa Sagemiller) don't let their bedfellowship get in their way of their jobs on opposite sides of the law. The series doesn't pursue this hokey hook very long.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Is it too easy to say that "Raising the Bar" raises no bar? At least it doesn't quite lower it. This may be adequate as far as TNT dramas go. But there's little to distinguish "Raising" from lesser legal shows that have come before it. I can't recommend trying to see every episode or buying this DVD. A better bet may be tuning in Monday nights this summer to see if it's gotten any better, but even that doesn't sound like a great use of your time. The show is so one-track that you get the same experience ten times over here. Watch a single episode, with its overlooked victims, legal wrangling, and snappy banter taking you from court to jail to offices and back. It will be as if you've seen them all.

"Raising the Bar" isn't Gosselaar's first brush with legal drama. Twenty years earlier, he starred in the WonderWorks movie Necessary Parties, playing a young teen who goes to court to stop his parents from divorcing. I can't even begin to define how much I'd rather see that than Season 2.

If, however, you are a fan and enough so to shell out $3 an episode, the DVD should keep you happy with its fine presentation and solid handful of bonus features.

More on the DVD / Buy from Amazon.com / Buy Season 2 from Amazon.com

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Featuring the Raising the Bar Cast:
Mark-Paul Gosselaar: Commander in Chief: Part 2 Commander in Chief: Part 1 | Melissa Sagemiller: The Guardian | Teddy Sears: Firehouse Dog
The Verdict (Collector's Edition) Primal Fear (Hard Evidence Edition) The Rainmaker (Special Collector's Edition)
Basic Cable Series: Leverage: The 2nd Season Breaking Bad: The Complete Second Season Army Wives: The Complete First Season
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Reviewed May 29, 2009.



Text copyright 2009 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 2008 ABC Studios/Steven Bochco Productions, 2009 Buena Vista Home Entertainment. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.