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Television Review

Just another well-behaved procedural

Jimmy Smits plays a Supreme Court judge who gives up the bench in “Outlaw.’’ Jimmy Smits plays a Supreme Court judge who gives up the bench in “Outlaw.’’ (Chris Haston/NBC)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / September 15, 2010

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Jimmy Smits may be a more faceted actor than most people realize. If you saw him in “Dexter,’’ you saw how the nobility he so often projects — on “NYPD Blue,’’ on “The West Wing’’ — has the potential to be a front. Behind his boyishly sincere eyes, Smits can work angry, vengeful, and anarchic emotions when needed. His charisma can be pushed in a creepy direction. Yes, he was heartbreaking as a hero gasping for breath during his last weeks on “NYPD Blue,’’ but he was just as effective playing a too-friendly buddy with a big shovel and a big grudge on “Dexter.’’

“Outlaw,’’ his new TV vehicle, isn’t going to introduce more viewers to Smits’s versatility. This is the kind of legal drama that sucks all of its actors into a vortex of smug preachiness, where the good guys and the bad guys will never be confused, where an actor like Smits becomes little more than a cardboard symbol of all that is right and true. After 20 minutes of tonight’s premiere, at 10 on Channel 7, you’ll already know each character too well, from the law firm’s sassy investigator (Carly Pope) to the colleague she flirtingly calls “Harvard’’ (Jesse Bradford).

Smits’s Cyrus Garza begins as a Supreme Court judge who drinks and gambles too much. But he gets religion for a number of reasons I won’t spoil here, and he decides he can have more of a positive impact on the little guy as a practicing lawyer. “I’m hurting the people I should be protecting,’’ Garza observes about the bench. No activist judge, he. Amid political controversy over the balance of the court, he steps down and starts a do-good firm that will take on hot issues from gay marriage to immigration. There are many, many legal dramas on TV, including “Damages’’ and “The Good Wife,’’ so a Supreme Court drama might be a welcome change. But “Outlaw’’ quickly rejects that potential in favor of a more run-of-the-mill endeavor.

Watching the death-penalty-themed premiere, I felt like a passenger in a car being driven by a willful driver at rush hour. I wanted to tell the writers not to turn right at the clogged-up Legal Procedural Boulevard, but to instead take Supreme Court Avenue all the way downtown. It’s a faster ride, with more unusual architecture. But, no. “Outlaw’’ turns Garza and his cuddly helpers into TV’s most insipid kind of righteousness squad, with the sassy gal and the ambitious Ivy Leaguer joined by Garza’s best friend, Al (David Ramsey), and his kooky, adoring law clerk (Ellen Woglom). Together they stumble across all the right evidence just in time to save the innocent victims from the jaws of injustice.

There’s not a hint of logic in the procedural aspect of the show. The development and the resolution of tonight’s case, in which a man on death row is trying to prove he isn’t a cop killer, represent the sloppiest, most factory-like TV writing there is. And there’s not much realism afoot, either. Just the idea of a man with Garza’s love of casinos getting confirmed in the first place is a bit of a laugh riot in this age of cellphone scrutiny and media obsessiveness. Not even Smits at his most charming can sell that kind of lazy writing.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit www.boston.com/ae/tv/blog/.

OUTLAW

Starring: Jimmy Smits, Jesse Bradford, Carly Pope, David Ramsey

On: NBC, Channel 7

Time: Tonight, 10-11