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Television Review

‘Defenders’ doesn’t quite make its case

Jim Belushi plays Las Vegas lawyer Nick Morelli. Jim Belushi plays Las Vegas lawyer Nick Morelli. (Robert Voets/CBS)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / September 22, 2010

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Not everyone who becomes a lawyer went to Harvard Law School. That’s the idea behind “The Defenders,’’ a legal drama with comedic elements starring Jerry O’Connell and Jim Belushi. The actors play scrappy Las Vegas lawyers who will take sleazy cases and do anything to win them.

It’s hard to watch Belushi in this CBS series, which premieres tonight at 10 on Channel 4, and not think about “According to Jim.’’ But if you can shake off post-traumatic memories of that lame sitcom, you might be surprised at how naturally he fits into this legal context.

As Nick Morelli, Belushi still does his share of familiar clowning and hamming; Morelli is a theatrical guy who throws water at a testifying medical examiner to prove a point. But he remains interesting even when the script calls for less comic notes, as he makes his quieter courtroom arguments. O’Connell is fine, but less enjoyable, as Pete Kaczmarek, his womanizing partner. Interestingly, Nick and Pete are based on real-life Vegas attorneys Michael Cristalli and Marc Saggese.

The legal cases are the weakest part of the show, playing out with all the predictable twists and feints. That may be the hardest thing to get right on a TV procedural, and only a few current shows — “The Closer,’’ “The Good Wife’’ — manage to come up with fresh cases and crimes on a regular basis. There are so many shows trafficking in crimes-of-the-week right now, it’s hard to imagine that coming up with new stories is actually possible — but it is.

Did I want to watch “The Defenders’’ again? Not so much. And that’s always the test. Sure, it’s nice to see Belushi in a new incarnation, and if I were trapped at a car repair shop in front of an episode I might be happy. But there are much better shows out there right now, and only so many hours in my day — and on my DVR.

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

THE DEFENDERS

Starring: Jim Belushi, Jerry O’Connell

On: CBS, Channel 4

Time: Tonight, 10-11