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Kelley's 'Law Firm' loses its appeal

Last night, I had the strangest dream. Giant toddler Tommy Hilfiger presided over a game of musical chairs for young capitalists hoping to become the next Kathy Hilton. Then a man with no forehead and a bronze Brillo beret dismissed the losers, saying ''Give me your jacket and get out of Hell's Kitchen." Or was that ''I'm sorry, you're not on the list"?

Then I woke up to reality and ''The Law Firm," the newest ''Apprentice" clone to hit prime time alongside ''I Want to Be a Hilton," ''The Cut," and ''Hell's Kitchen." This series, which starts tonight at 9 on Channel 7, has the distinction of being ''Ally McBeal" creator David E. Kelley's first foray into unscripted irritainment. Otherwise, it has very little distinction. It's just one more shark race -- this time among lawyers -- in an ocean of Trumpian ego-trip TV.

The big braggart on ''The Law Firm" is Roy Black, a barking-crab of a trial lawyer known for his defense of William Kennedy Smith and his appearances on NBC news shows. Black stares down his 12 players over a boardroom table, promising the winner of the competition $250,000 and ''recognition by me as the finest young trial lawyer of the law firm." Not exactly a job offer, and not exactly modest, but I digress. Black clearly takes his Trump imitation seriously, right down to the exaggerated word pronunciation and the stern efforts to inspire histrionics at the ''dismissal" meetings at the end of every episode. His big trademark line is: ''The verdict is in, and you're out."

Tonight's episode divides the players into four teams of three. Two teams argue either side of a dog-on-dog attack case, and two argue either side of an officer-impersonation case. It all has the tabloid air of ''Judge Judy" about it, but with the added feature of having the lawyers bicker with one another, and the judges bicker with the lawyers, and Black bicker with the lawyers about the judges. And the bickering isn't namby-pamby when you've got 12 lawyers in the house. These guys don't give up easily. When Olivier, who looks like Simon Baker of ''The Guardian," and Regina clash over their approach to the dog case, it's a fierce battle of wills, and we're not talking last testaments.

The show has a little something to offer viewers on how the law works. But that material would be news only to those who haven't seen ''Law & Order," the Kelley shows including ''The Practice" and ''L.A. Law," or anything on Court TV. The trial maneuverings on ''The Law Firm" are low-key, and they promise to offer few revelatory twists. And while the players may actually have presented and argued their cases in great detail, time constraints have forced the show's editors to whittle their courtroom scenes down to nothing. We don't get to see nearly enough of the lawyers' work to learn anything from it.

It's not hard to guess why Kelley chose a legal competition as his reality coming out. A former lawyer, he has been almost obsessed with portraying the law on TV. But it is hard to know why Kelley would bother with the reality genre in the first place. He is one of TV's most noted auteurs, a talent known for the originality of his scripts, characters, and concepts. Perhaps he's just anxious to follow the fashion after a string of scripted TV flops, including ''The Brotherhood of Poland, New Hampshire," ''Snoops," and ''girls club." That, or he's trying to save paper.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at

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