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TELEVISION REVIEW

A split verdict for 'The Jury'

Used to be, there was a sacred bubble around juries, those judicial bodies empowered to determine the fates of others. Sequestered behind heavy wooden doors, and then dispersed back into anonymity, 12 ordinary people were able to play God without the added pressures of public scrutiny and telegenic wardrobe choices.

Now, of course, jury members have evolved into media figures who explain their decisions with oh-so-sensitive newsmagazine vultures such as Katie and Diane and Barbara. In the post-O.J. world, where the boundary between privacy and entertainment is so blurry, juries are as exploited as every other element in our justice system. It's a fitting coincidence that Fox's promising new scripted drama, "The Jury," debuts close to the 10th anniversary of the Simpson-Goldman murders.

"The Jury," which premieres tonight at 8 on Channel 25, certainly chronicles the effect of the media eye on its fictional juries. In each episode, 12 different people are locked in a room to debate a different case, and quips about their own media profile -- for example, who will play them in the movie? -- pop up throughout the deliberations like flash bulbs. The series takes the moral boxing match of "12 Angry Men" and ushers it into an era when the purity of the legal process is more threatened than ever.

But the threats to justice in "The Jury" include a lot more than the media personnel clustered on courtroom stairs. The show is eager to remind us that jurors are limited in countless ways -- by critical facts that have been disallowed in the courtroom, by the shrewd maneuverings of the lawyers, by their own deeply set biases. Even the most conscientious and objective of juries is inevitably imperfect, as we watch it make horribly wrong assumptions and decisions. Like the "Law & Order" and "CSI" shows, "The Jury" rests on the tragic ironic twist, as the guilty walk free and the innocent are cuffed right before the credits roll.

Also like "Law & Order" and "CSI," "The Jury" is a weekly crime series that shuns continuing story lines in favor of self-contained episodes (ripe for syndication). Each week, we meet a new jury for a new crime, while a number of court figures return: Billy Burke and Jeff Hephner as the prosecutors, Anna Friel and Shalom Harlow as defense attorneys, and Steve Dixon as the quirkier-than-thou court bailiff. In the premiere, the trial involves a 15-year-old accused of a homicide he allegedly committed at 13. Episode 2 takes on a failed double suicide by young lovers obsessed with "Romeo and Juliet." As the diverse juries discuss their feelings about these people, the show flashes back to the trial, and to the crime itself, creating a sort of dizzying electronic collage of the case.

The show has great credentials. Barry Levinson and Tom Fontana, both from "Homicide: Life on the Street" and "Oz," are among the executive producers, with Levinson also performing as a no-nonsense judge. Unfortunately, "The Jury" won't allow the kind of character depth and gray morality that distinguished those earlier series. This show moves fast (it may be too jumpy for some, as it leaps from past to present and back), and it focuses stubbornly on its crime of the week. Indeed, because each script must introduce more than a dozen new characters, the writers rely on stereotyping to save time, and you can too quickly read the character of each juror in an instant: the racist pig, the impatient businessman, the maternal older lady. If the writers were more willing to let the jurors be more than mouthpieces for points of view, they'd go a lot further in showing exactly what it means to be tried by a jury of our peers.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com.

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