Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Has Shark Run Aground?
Shark has always been more a guilty pleasure than a serious pursuit. It’s an old school series with an unlikely premise—that an amoral, high priced trial attorney with a taste for luxury would suddenly develop a conscience, shuck it all and go to work as a prosecutor. With a premise like that, it was inevitable that the show would have to have an actor who shamelessly chews up scenery as its protagonist, the kind of actor audiences love to hate, and hate the fact they love him.

In short, Shark was the perfect vehicle for James Woods. That has proven to be a Damoclean sword for the series, however. Woods’ bombastic portrayal of Sebastian Stark often borders on the campy, especially in the courtroom scenes. Without his over the top performances, though, Shark would be just another procedural courtroom drama, albeit one that owes more to House, structurally speaking, than Perry Mason.

Courtroom procedure is a constrictive canvas, especially in the case of a show like Shark, with a lead character broadly painted by Woods. It’s no wonder, then, that Season Two has gradually veered away from standard courtroom fare to explore Stark’s unsavory past.

In “Bar Fight,” Stark’s unsavory past comes back to destroy his present and future. It seems that in 1996, he witnessed a client dispose of a body, and failed to mention it to the authorities. Twelve years later, the birds have come home to roost, and Stark faces disbarment, as well as accessory to murder charges. Riddled by guilt (not to mention the possibility his life could crumble), he goes on a quest to solve the mystery of how the victim actually died, and who was ultimately responsible for her death. The fact that he’s prompted by the state attorney general’s office to do this is to clear his name is of little consequence, of course.

The story is all a bit contrived, and very little of it rings true. Villains who are presented as killers with no conscience spend most of the episode negotiating with Woods’ character, rather than merely eliminating him. Despite the TV formula script structure, “Bar Fight” finally offers plot surprises and double crosses that leave us begging for more.

Admittedly, Shark faces an uncertain future, and “Bar Fight” could signal the end of its run. If that proves to be the case, this episode lets it go out with a modicrum of dignity. If, on the other hand, this episode represents a turning point in the show’s direction, it’s a just maybe possibility that Shark can redefine courtroom dramas.

I’m not really betting on the latter. Trapped between the currents of Boston Legal, Law and Order and its CSI brethren, Shark is a fish out of water. It’s been moved in scheduling slots repeatedly, and now it’s pitted against the forces of American Idol. It’s not a pretty scenario, but Shark has a tendency to beat the odds.

Stay tuned.