Monday, September 19, 2016

TV REVIEW: CBS' 'Bull'

CBS will premiere its new drama series Bull on Tuesday, September 20 at 9/8c. following the season premiere of NCIS. The drama stars Michael Weatherly, Freddy Rodriguez, Geneva Carr, Jaime Lee Kirchner, Annabelle Attanasio and Christopher Jackson.

Read on for my thoughts on the legal drama after screening its premiere episode.


CBS' new series Bull has a really funny premiere episode. Problem is, it's a drama and not a comedy. Every single laughable moment is unintentional. The story of the first episode is so completely ridiculous, awkward and lackluster. It does not do a proper job at setting up what this show actually is. More damaging though, the moments that are played seriously just come across so poorly that they can elicit laughter. It's hard to understand or care about anything that any single character does. This show wants to copy what has worked in this genre in the past. Bull wants to be House or Monk (or at the very least, The Mentalist). But it does not process the basic understanding of what made those shows successes in the first place. Bull may well succeed because it airs after NCIS and it boasts former NCIS star Michael Weatherly in the leading role. The story doesn't require a lot of attention or thought. It's easy to swallow down. That doesn't make for an engaging series though. It doesn't make this something I ever want to revisit. It's just a show that should have spent even more time in development to figure out what it actually wants to say.

Bull is based on the early career of Dr. Phil McGraw, who Weatherly looks nothing like but got cast in the lead role nevertheless. Weatherly's character Dr. Jason Bull is a psychologist who runs a trial-consulting service that uses science and observation to determine how a jury will vote. It takes the mystery out of the whole process. It reduces it down to analytics in the hopes of swaying the vote one way or another. In the premiere, Bull's client is a billionaire's son who is accused of murder. This first episode of the show primarily focuses on Bull and the case. The supporting characters have their basic descriptions and nothing more. That's almost criminal considering the ensemble includes Hamilton star Christopher Jackson. And yet, this is just a showcase hour for Bull and what he does. He may potentially be changing how the legal system operates. And yet, it's difficult to emerge from this premiere with any understanding of what just happened and what all of it means for the future for this lead character.

Nowhere in this premiere does the story make it clear why Bull does anything that he does. He has a gut feeling about this case. And surprise, surprise! That feeling turns out to be true. It doesn't matter that his methods may rub some people the wrong way. It's just important that he's right and is successful at his job. But what are his rules and ethics? Nowhere in this premiere is it established what Bull hopes to do with this team. He simply takes on this case because the family pays for his services. Does that mean the wealthy are able to game the system because they have money? Or does Bull only represent people that he believes are innocent of their crimes? It really could go either way. It's hard to tell based on this opening episode. Bull is the focal character but the man himself is still quite a mystery. It's hard to get a grasp on what motivates this man and why the audience should care about him. He is suppose to be seen as a likable rascal because he is right. He has all the answers and solutions despite his growly and condescending presence. But that really doesn't make him an endearing leading man at all - though Weatherly is perfectly fine in the role.

Nor is it abundantly clear if the show has anything important or challenging to say about the criminal justice system. The series opens with man-on-the-street interviews showing that society has strong feelings about this issue. The show wants to appeal to everyone though. It wants to believe that the innocent won't be sent to jail. That all it takes is the right man in their corner fighting for them. Telling them to share the truth. Consequences be damned. But it also wants to solve these cases. The defendant may not be guilty. And now, here's the actual answer to who's really guilty. Bull solves that as well. So, is Bull a psychologist helping with a defense strategy that works for his clients? Or is he a man trying to find justice in the world while making some money as well? It's not clear whatsoever. The show wants to be all things to all people. But that method rarely ever works. It largely just creates a muddled mess that doesn't know what to do with itself. It's funny when it comes to outrageous twists and turns. But the actual substance is very weak and shouldn't merit any further examination.