'Raising the Bar' for a Second Season

Today's cuppa: Yorkshire Gold tea -- on the second big mug already, and it's barely 9 a.m.

A few weeks ago, I sat down for a chicken-centric lunch at Steven Bochco's office, with the veteran producer and the star of his latest show, "Raising the Bar," former "NYPD Blue' star Mark-Paul Gosselaar. On the way out, I said a quick hello to Bochco's fellow executive producer (and former Brooklyn public defender) David Feige.

(Gosselaar had a wrap sandwich; Bochco had roast chicken; I had Chinese chicken salad. What Raising_the_Bar Feige had for lunch, I do not know.)

I grabbed Feige on the phone the following week, and the result is this syndicated feature story about the legal drama's second-season premiere, which airs tonight. If you're feeling like you're not quite up to speed on the show, the first season is out on DVD.

Enjoy!

'Raising the Bar' gets a continuance on TNT

By Kate O'Hare
©Zap2it

TNT's "Raising the Bar" didn't cause a media circus outside the courtroom in its first season, but it made a good enough argument to the viewers and network executives to earn a continuance for a second season of 15 episodes, launching Monday, June 8, in the coveted slot after "The Closer."

For Mark-Paul Gosselaar, who plays idealistic public defender Jerry Kellerman, it all feels like one long case.

Says executive producer Steven Bochco over a takeout chicken lunch with his young star, "When we started the second season about three weeks ago ... "

"It was like we hadn't stopped," interjects Gosselaar.

"It was absolutely like we hadn't stopped," Bochco says.

But production did stop -- at least long enough to let Gosselaar trim the long locks that garnered so much attention in season one. On this day, they're a bit mashed from being stuffed under a motorcycle helmet, but it's definitely a new look.

"That also feels like a long time ago," Gosselaar says, eyeing a plump chicken wrap sandwich. "We can always put the wig back on."

Set in the legal system of New York, "Raising the Bar" is based on the experiences of series co-creator (with Bochco) David Feige, a lawyer and author who was one of the founding members of the Bronx Defenders, a nonprofit organization providing free legal representation to Bronx residents charged with crimes.

Kellerman's associates are Bobbi Gilardi and Richard Woolsley (Natalia Cigliuti, Teddy Sears), and they all report to Roz Whitman (Gloria Reuben).

But the show isn't just about public defenders -- there are also prosecutors. Under Assistant District Attorney Nick Balco (Currie Graham) are Michelle Ernhardt and Marcus McGrath (Melissa Sagemiller, J. August Richards).

Riding herd on everyone is the mercurial and ambitious Judge Kessler (Jane Kaczmarek), who's dealing with a coming-out announcement from her aide and former lover, Charlie Sagansky (Jonathan Scarfe).

Added to the roster this year is Judge Albert Farnsworth (John Michael Higgins).

For Feige -- who's not at lunch but calls in later before flying back to New York -- it's been an opportunity to think about what those folks across the courtroom aisle do in their free time.

"Literally, doing this show," he says, "I spend more time every day thinking about the private lives of prosecutors than I did in all of my previous life combined."

But having Jerry prosecute a romance with Michelle got Feige no cheers back in the Bronx.

"I heard through the grapevine," he says, "that a bunch of the judges loved the show. Of course, I was filleted by many of my colleagues, who took the relationship between Jerry and Michelle as a terrible betrayal.

"The more militant of my colleagues were all, 'I would never have a relationship with one of them.' "

Apparently there's also a statute of limitations on pleading simple lust.

"Oh, Melissa's super-hot," Feige says, "but the 'she's super-hot' defense only goes so far among strident, hardcore public defenders. It's funny, I was at some place, and someone said, 'She's hot and mean and dirty; who could resist that?' "

Jerry has also been working on other aspects of his life, including his quixotic tendency to run into procedural walls. According to Bochco, he's grown up a bit this season.

As to whether he wanted that, Gosselaar says, "Did I? Trust me, he still runs into walls, because that's more challenging to play. As an actor, you want to play a character that continues to evolve and progress."

The show has also evolved.

"We made some tonal adjustments that were right," Feige says. "As much as I love Jerry's speechifying, I think there needed to be more levity, a little more lightness to the tone.

"But the truth of what we did is still the template for the second season and then on after, which is to say really great stories with very powerful points of view, mediated by judges with their own agendas."

But don't tune in expecting a whole new "Raising the Bar'" -- and you have TNT to thank for that.

"Nobody's looking over our shoulders moment to moment," Bochco says. "Nobody's looking for the giant, melodramatic cliffhanger. Nobody's saying, 'Let's replace the cast.'

"So we're able to do things creatively that build on what we've done already, without having to turn everything upside down. I think if we had a show that needed to be turned upside down, we wouldn't have been back."

Feige also thinks the show has done right by the law.

"We don't always follow the real outcomes of cases," he says, "but my point is, we tend to stick closely to what's true. But it's drama, and we want to find the compelling drama in all the stories.

"But yeah, I do think we've done the law justice. I think that, by saying what's true, you're doing something that's important."