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Television Review

Tierney makes ‘The Whole Truth’ worth seeking

Maura Tierney and Rob Morrow play old friends and courtroom adversaries. Maura Tierney and Rob Morrow play old friends and courtroom adversaries. (Michael Desmond/ABC)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / September 22, 2010

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How do you save a legal procedural produced by Jerry Bruckheimer from feeling like a factory-made product? Hire Maura Tierney. The actress, who joined “The Whole Truth’’ after Joely Richardson dropped out, is the best reason to watch this new ABC series, which premieres tonight at 10 on Channel 5.

Having seen the original Richardson pilot, which was re-filmed to add in Tierney, I can tell you that Tierney saves the show from near worthlessness. She brings a passion, a finely gauged sense of humor, and a strong chemistry with costar Rob Morrow that were missing before. As workaholic New York prosecutor Kathryn Peale, whose personal life is nearly nonexistent, Tierney probably won’t have the freedom to show her range as a dramatic actress. But on “The Whole Truth’’ she does get to prove she can successfully carry the bulk of a series on her own.

The concept is that we will watch a case unfold in the courtroom each week, with Peale going up against Morrow’s defense attorney Jimmy Brogan. We won’t know who really dunnit in advance — we’ll watch the lawyers argue their sides and make our judgments based on how persuasive they are. Then, in the final moments of the episode, after the jury has delivered their verdict, we will find out . . . the whole truth. Tonight’s case has a high school teacher — whose wife has cancer — standing trial for the rape and murder of a female student.

For the most part, the procedural material is boilerplate stuff we’ve seen zillions of times already on “Law & Order,’’ with right turns and smoking guns and unexpected witnesses. The pleasure to be found on the show is in watching Tierney and Morrow riff off each other like very competitive tennis players, hitting the ball back and forth with all their anger behind each whack — then shaking hands warmly at the end of the match. They’re old friends — and maybe more — from law school whose intense rivalry is mixed up with flirtation and friendship. “Underneath this terrifying exterior, there is a very likable person trying to get out,’’ Kathryn says to a colleague, and we — and Jimmy — know it’s true. I’m hoping the writers will not play silly games with us about whether or not Kathryn and Jimmy will end up together romantically — but they do seem meant for each other.

The ensemble surrounding Tierney and Morrow is relatively indistinct, except for Eamonn Walker as a lawyer who frequently works with Kathryn. Walker, who was Kareem Said on “Oz,’’ projects an elegance here that suits him. He and Tierney make an appealing pair, with his calm and ease counteracting her obsessive and adversarial nature. He sets the temperature to warm, she provides the drive.

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

THE WHOLE TRUTH

Starring: Maura Tierney, Rob Morrow, Eamonn Walker, Christine Adams

On: ABC, Channel 5

Time: Tonight, 10-11