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TELEVISION REVIEW

'Justice' prevails as slick drama

The title, of course, is ironic. ``Justice" is a screamingly cynical new Fox drama in which justice hardly matters at all in the courtroom. Choreography, costuming, and media spin are far more relevant than exhibits A, B, or C, and sustained eye contact with the judge is always a most desirable object.

The show, which premieres tonight at 9 on Channel 25, delights in turning criminal trials into ultra-sleek Hollywood productions that make the O.J. case look like a ragged indie film. Executive produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, ``Justice" tracks the high-profile trials of the law firm of TNT&G, whose senior partner, Ron Trott (Victor Garber), is more passionate about promoting his clients' innocence on TV than he is about gathering evidence.

When he's told owl-like glamour-crime maven Dominick Dunne wants a seat at one of his trials, Trott gets hot.

The show, Fox's strongest newcomer this season, is at its very best as a dissection of state-of-the-art trial manipulation. The case in tonight's premiere is a generic TV crime plot, as a rich guy is accused of killing his cheating wife, who is found floating in their mansion pool. But the episode is fascinating as it zooms in on Trott & Company's efforts to control fate. They hire a jury adviser to analyze each possible juror to determine his or her potential sympathy with the defendant. They have a shadow jury watching the trial and advising them. They have focus groups rating Trott's performance on TV shows, since, as Trott says, ``This is trial by TV."

TNT&G manages the subliminals, too. Partner Alden Tuller (Rebecca Mader) is single but wears a wedding ring to court because it makes her look trustworthy. And Trott is pleased to have Tom Nicholson (Kerr Smith from ``Dawson's Creek") as a partner since, as Trott puts it, he has ``the good-looking all-American face of not guilty." Despite his egotism, Trott is smart enough to realize that juries don't like him and his self-controlled manner. He prefers to let Nicholson take over the courtroom so he can put his abrasive foot on a Nancy Grace-like cable show, where he is unruffled by the host's needling comments. Let his partners worry about the defense; he's got his media dukes up.

No longer the noble dad from ``Alias," Garber seems to enjoy being a silver shark. He casts an atmosphere of cool intelligence and smugness over the show, but then he is somewhat balanced by Smith's more emotional responsiveness. As Luther Graves, the quieter partner, Eamonn Walker from ``Oz" is the vaguest of the four lawyers. Perhaps he will become more defined as the season progresses.

And perhaps ``Justice" itself will also become more humanized as it goes on. The show takes a wearisome fast-edit approach that matches Trott's aloof personal style, and it needs to steady its gaze and expand its characters. Even the defendants-of-the-week need to be more thoroughly fleshed out -- something that a crime show like ``The Closer" does with concision and smart casting. After all, it never hurts to let us see the humanity that's at stake behind all the elaborate trial trickery.

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

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