It doesn't take long for Fox's "Canterbury's Law" to give us a conveniently symbolic scene. Early in tonight's premiere, at 8 on Channel 25, shark-like defense lawyer Elizabeth Canterbury strides directly into the courthouse men's room to talk to her male partner about their case. She is so fixated on her point, she seems to forget the fact that she's a woman. We, of course, don't. And neither does her partner, who freezes at the urinal.
This new drama starring Julianna Margulies is about a woman who isn't hung up on gender expectations, even if the world around her is. Elizabeth is presented as yet another brilliant professional on TV who's just bad when it comes to the personal. She's like House. Yet thankfully it doesn't look as though the show, executive produced by Denis Leary and Jim Serpico of "Rescue Me," intends to punish her for being a woman in the men's room by making her flaky or apologetic or, worst of all, sappy. Think about the power "House" would lose if the doctor began to atone for his meanness.
"Canterbury's Law" works when it comes to Elizabeth's drive and Margulies's confident portrayal of her. Elizabeth isn't as amoral and calculating as Glenn Close's lawyer on FX's "Damages"; this is network TV, where redeeming qualities are still of value. She has a heart, and she is courageous. But she's most interesting as a lawyer who'll do anything to protect her clients, including witness tampering and coaching them to lie under oath. She is hard and hard- drinking, and she's fooling around on her husband (an underused Aidan Quinn). Unfortunately, the character has been saddled with a tragedy - a missing child - that I'm hoping won't be used in future episodes to excuse her behavior, to garner sympathy. For the show to work, Elizabeth needs to be a consistent study in toughness.
Margulies succeeds in dropping all of the fragility she conveyed so effectively on "ER." Tonight, she even takes a punch in the face from a guy on the stand. There are strong scenes that pit her against a fierce district attorney played with comic crankiness by Terry Kinney. It looks as though Kinney's DA will be a recurring character, which is a good thing. And Margulies has an appealing chemistry with Ben Shenkman, who is her softer associate and her moral conscience - the Wilson to her House.
Here's the problem with "Canterbury's Law": The cases. The characters work on and fight over legal cases that are hackneyed and obvious. Tonight's business about a missing child - which, of course, resonates with Elizabeth - is "Law & Order 101." The writers drop us into the middle of the trial, and we don't know in advance who committed the crime. And yet the guilty party is bursting with guilt from the get-go. It's as if there's an arrow pointing to him with the phrase "He did it" above it. There's no suspense, and not enough legal twistiness.
"House" has overcome the same problem - a dependence on formulaic cases of the week - with a great lead performance and a crackling script. I hope the writers will be able to give us cases that are more intelligently devised and mysterious, like David E. Kelley did in the early days of "The Practice." On "Canterbury's Law," Canterbury has promise but her law needs a lot of work.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.