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'Shark' star Woods is legal drama's hook

"Shark" begs to be compared to "House." Both give us wordy, brilliant men at their peaks, traumatizing newbies instead of wrestling with their own demons. Both are star vehicles, ``House" for Hugh Laurie and "Shark" for James Woods , the actor whose rubbery face was born to hold a cigar.

Both make sarcasm into the art of catharsis. But in "Shark," which premieres tonight at 10 on Channel 4, Woods' s LA lawyer doesn't resort to withering humor like Dr. House. Sebastian Stark -- people call him Shark behind his back -- resorts to schmaltz.

Yes, Stark spits out tough-guy mottos such as "Your job is to win, justice is God's problem," and he toys with his minions like a fiendish group therapist. But see him melt around his teen daughter Julie (Danielle Panabaker ), who has toughed out her parents' divorce. And watch him nobly promise vindication to a murdered man's grieving mother.

"Shark" isn't about a shark; it's about Perry Mason .

The truth is that "Shark" is a lot softer than ``House," and less challenging for the viewer. "Shark" is a very conventional courtroom TV drama about a do-good lawyer, and its only distinction is the ferocious acting of Woods. It isn't an awful legal procedural, and tonight's episode is directed by Spike Lee without a dull moment. But the CBS series is still just another rote opportunity for a hero to strut his hour upon the courtroom stage during stock, case-of-the-week trials. Stark is the culmination of every morally driven TV attorney from Mason to Matlock to McCoy on ``Law & Order."

At the beginning of ``Shark," Stark is a bullying defense lawyer whose home is so modern, glassy, and impersonal it looks like a high-tech office on Route 128. He cruises LA like the king of the world, with a Bluetooth in his ear and ``Mack the Knife" on the car stereo.

But after Stark talks a jury out of convicting a wife-beater who later kills his wife, he has a crisis of conscience. And faster than you can say Atticus Finch , he's handling high-profile cases in the prosecutor's office and working for the DA he has sparred with for years (Jeri Ryan ). It might have been more dramatic in the long run to remake Stark inch by inch over the season, but ``Shark" is one of the few new shows that is not serialized.

He's bad -- commercial break -- he's good.

Woods is riveting, because he is such a machine gun of an actor, and he makes the ordinary script crackle. He doesn't aim for style or grace like Victor Garber on the new Fox series ``Justice" ; he's all straight-on love-me-or-hate-me intensity. And yet he wisely underplays Shark's guilt complex, aware that scenery-chewing can cause indigestion when it comes to evoking remorse. His scenes with Ryan ring false only because she's like cotton candy next to him, but then he meets his equal in guest star Lynn Whitfield , who plays a fierce defense lawyer. I'm hoping Whitfield will become a recurring character on ``Shark," although it might mean changing the title to ``Sharks."

The ensemble of young'uns is more immediately distinctive than the kids on ``House," and there is potential for character development. But right now the show, which CBS has blessed with the slot after ``CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," belongs to Woods. He's the reason ``Shark" doesn't bite.

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