PASADENA, Calif. — There's a scene in the midst of the first episode of the new CBS drama "First Monday" that sums up what it's trying to be — and what's wrong with the show.
The members of the fictional U.S. Supreme Court that populate the program gather in sort of a football team-like huddle and do sort of a group high-five as the chief justice (James Garner) exclaims, "Let's go make history!"
It comes across as incredibly hokey and unrealistic — as does the "First Monday," which premieres tonight at 9 before moving to its regular time slot on Friday at 8 p.m.
Creator/executive producer Don Bellisario ("JAG") defends the choice, while admitting the real Supreme Court operates in a much less gridiron-like fashion.
"What they really do is shake hands — that's it," Bellisario said. "But, quite honestly, you're creating a TV series. You're trying to entertain."
(Trying would be the functional word.)
The two primary stars of the show — Garner and Joe Mantegna — both defended that scene on much the same grounds.
"Who is to say how they shake hands?' Mantegna said. "To me, it's one of the fascinating things about (the characters)."
"Do you want nine justices shaking hands on screen while you're sitting in your living room?" Garner said.
"And coming from a football background as his character does and as Jim does in reality, I kind of thought it was neat," Bellisario said.
Well, that's one interpretation. It's certainly a legitimate argument that a television show is, at best, heightened reality. But the outstanding shows — like "The West Wing," for example — manage to create their own heightened reality that nonetheless rings true.
"First Monday," on the other hand, never seems like anything other than a TV show. While a lot of "West Wing" viewers would like to see the fictional President Bartlet in the real White House, not much of anybody is going to want to see Garner leading the Supreme Court.
Garner pretty much walks through his role as Chief Justice Thomas Brankin, while Mantegna brings more passion to his part as the newest member of the court — and the swing vote in an otherwise evenly divided panel — Joseph Novelli. The other seven justices are all represented (Charles Durning the most prominent of the lot), and much of the action surrounds the justices' clerks.
As a matter of fact, there are too many characters to keep track of. Bellisario admits that when you add Brankin and Novelli's families "we have about 25 regular and recurring characters, of which we used 18 to 20 every week."
And frankly, trying to service that many characters in 44 minutes of camera time is not good TV.
The bigger problem, however, is that — at least in the first couple of episodes — "First Monday's" attempts to reach high fall far short. Major issues are addressed, but they're trivialized and simplified.
While "First Monday" wants to be the Supreme Court equivalent of "The West Wing," it's more like a judicial version of "Family Law."