When an actor has become synonymous with playing one of the most popular characters on one of the highest-rated television series for over a decade, it’s hard for the audience to detach them from that long-standing role and accept them as someone completely new, so it’s understandable if we’re initially struggling to see Doctor Jason Bull as anything other than an undercover role for NCIS’ Tony DiNozzo, complete with thick-rimmed spectacles to make him look more serious and introspective.
That’s not the fault of Michael Weatherley, for whom Bull is something of a star vehicle after finding fame on NCIS. It’s just an acknowledgement that after 13 years on a weekly television show, an actor has put so much of himself onto a recurring role that the audience believes that it has a familiarity with them that is hard to overcome – especially when he moves direct from one part to another over the summer hiatus without so much as a breather. And truth to tell, the character of Bull really isn’t all that far from that of DiNozzo, and it doesn’t help that both NCIS and Bull are both rather similar story-of-the-week crime procedurals: although that said, while NCIS is a traditional cop show investigative whodunnit, Bull is more of a legal ‘how are they doing to get the client out of that?’ format that extends all the way back to the classic Perry Mason series of the 1950s.
In these dark and cynical days it’s hard to have a lawyer as the hero of a TV series, so instead the eponymous lead character of Bull is a psychologist who has built a career as a trial consultant, someone who knows how to profile the optimum jury for his client and track their detailed responses to various potential legal strategies to determine which will most effectively win them over once the proceedings get underway. In legal dramas of the past the jury was usually seen as a silent, anonymous block of extras in the background, but 12 Angry Men started a change that was accelerated by saturation coverage of the real-life OJ Simpson drama, developed further in a fascinating jury selection episode of Steven Bochco’s Murder One, and then picked up and put front-and-centre of John Grisham’s 1996 novel The Runaway Jury. In the case of Bull, the set-up has been inspired by the early career of US talk show host Phil McGraw as a genuine real-life trial consultant, with Paul Attanasio (Homicide: Life on The Street, House) on board as co-creator and executive producer, and Weatherly himself serving as a producer on the show.
In the 2003 film adaptation of Runaway Jury, Gene Hackman played jury consultant Rankin Fitch and his hi-tech, multi-faceted operation of researching, surveilling and bullying the jury in a high-profile case is pretty much the blueprint for what we see presented here in Bull. The only problem is that Fitch was unquestionably the bad guy in that story, and his manipulation of the legal system was presented as a very bad and evil thing for the fundamentals of US jurisprudence. A decade later and Bull has to work very hard indeed merely to persuade us that the sort of machinations utilised by Jason Bull’s Trial Analysis Corporation (TAC) aren’t actually jury manipulation or jury tampering after all, but are actually a good thing really, honest. Hence every story takes great pains to show Bull seeking to redress some sort of unfair instinctive bias on the part of the jury pool toward an unsympathetic client or because of what they’ve read in the tabloids. The stated aim of Bull’s intervention is to achieve a level playing field on which to conduct a fair trial rather than to unlawfully influence it. Bull isn’t even tainted by money, bless him – in one episode he turns down a big pay cheque from a client because he feels a penniless innocent man has a greater need of his services. Truly, the man is a saint: just don’t look too closely as he organises a fake storm warning so that he can stage an impromptu floor show within earshot of the sheltering jury in order to influence them outside the evidentiary rules of the courtroom.
Okay, this is meant to be entertainment so let’s not get too hot and bothered about how it depicts and indeed worryingly celebrates the US legal system as irretrievably flawed, tainted and dysfunctional in ways that make it far from being fit for purpose any more. Looking at it purely as a television drama, Bull is pretty polished and well written. At times it feels that Bull wants to be a light comedy-drama about a bunch of likeable conmen along the lines of Hustle or Ocean’s 11, more interested in cooking up fun confidence tricks to pull on the ‘mark’ (which in this case is the jury) than in depicting a traditional courtroom drama.
Weatherley is working hard at the centre of things but left somewhat isolated by a supporting cast that has yet to find its feet or make an impression. None of them have succeeded in becoming anything like rounded characters so far in the first six episodes, and indeed several seem to have been thrown in purely to make up the numbers and have remarkably little to contribute to the story – such as an image consultant who chooses the client’s courtroom tie and a social media hacker who occasionally pops up to tell them what Twitter is saying about the case. There’s nothing here that couldn’t be done by supporting guest actors and you wonder why the show just didn’t make it all about Bull himself and do away entirely with the rest of the main cast. Tellingly, even six episodes into its first season, the series is already recalling other, more interesting guest characters from previous stories rather than work with its regulars.
Actually the characters aren’t really the point of Bull, which is far more interested in the various methods by which Bull and his team read and influence the jury. In this it reminds me of the earliest seasons of Criminal Minds which had a genuine interest in exploring and explaining the emerging new methods that forensic profilers were developing to catch criminals; unfortunately that show soon ran out of new academic material and started repeating itself, eventually becoming just another serial-killer-of-the-week cop show. While so far it’s been trying commendably hard to find variation in its stories week-by-week (an outing to small-town Texas was a particularly welcome change of pace) I suspect that Bull will also hit a similar wall when it runs out of techniques to showcase, and when it does it will likely lack the backstop of an engaging ensemble team that Criminal Minds managed to put in place and parlay into a highly successful run of 12 seasons and counting.
At the moment I’m simply not seeing that sort of potential for growth in Bull, but that’s not to say it won’t emerge if only Weatherly’s star power can keep the series afloat long enough for it to develop its own identity, much in the way that Hugh Laurie’s powerhouse performance transformed House from a very limited diagnosis-of-the-week medical show into a genuine global phenomenon. It would help if Bull himself wasn’t obsessively presented as quite so saintly (despite occasional hints of a darker, more troubled personality deep down) or if the show could bear to address the fundamentally troublesome ethical nature of the work of jury consultants, either of which would help add a bit of grit at the heart of a show that is at the moment simply too slickly superficial for its own good.
Rating: ★ ★ ★
Bull airs in the UK on Fox at 10pm on Friday evenings. A full 22-episode first season has been commissioned; a second season is expected but has not been confirmed at the time of writing.