'The Deep End' review: Just treading water

the-deep-end-320.jpgThe young lawyers of "The Deep End" are bright, ambitious, attractive, neurotic, scared, prone to sleeping with co-workers and in awe of/deeply afraid of their bosses.

In other words, they're almost exactly like the doctors of "Grey's Anatomy" circa season one, but with suits instead of scrubs. And that's the chief issue with "The Deep End," which premieres at 8 p.m. ET Thursday (Jan. 21), just before "Grey's": Despite being populated with likable actors giving mostly solid performances, it's hard to escape the feeling that you've seen this before.

I'm hopeful that will change in the future, that the show will find a more specific voice and set itself apart. Creator David Hemingson is an ex-lawyer, and he's said a good portion of the show is based on his own experience. But the premiere is all ABC gave us to go on, and that specificity isn't there yet.

The series follows five young associates (played by Matt Long, Tina Majorino, Leah Pipes, Ben Lawson and Mehcad Brooks) at a prestigious L.A. firm. Dylan Hewitt (Long, "Jack & Bobby") arrives early for his first day at work -- only to find out he's actually 10 days late, thanks to a little trick the partners like to play to keep the first-years off balance. Fellow newbies Addy (Majorino, "Big Love" and "Veronica Mars"), Beth (Pipes, "Sorority Row") and Liam (Lawson) are similarly floundering, though Beth and Liam have already taken refuge in each other's beds.

While the young associates are earnest (if caddish, in Liam's case) and eager to please, the firm's partners are meant to supply the edge -- but we have to take everyone's word for that, because their actions don't offer much proof. Cliff Huddle (Billy Zane, enjoying another bad-guy turn) is nicknamed the Prince of Darkness, but he's less pure evil than just kind of intimidatingly direct. He's married (but not especially solidly) to Susan (Nicole Ari Parker), the tough-but-encouraging head of litigation, and battling over the direction of the firm with senior partner Hart Sterling (Clancy Brown), who's returning to action with a different vision.

Brooks ("True Blood") plays Malcolm, another new associate whom Hart brings in to join the other four over Cliff's strenuous objections. He gets the least screen time of the newbies in the pilot, and as such he's a little more intriguing -- Malcolm doesn't quite seem to know what to make of the situation, and thus we don't quite know what to make of him.

That's less true of the other associates, who are prone to confessional gatherings where they all discuss how overwhelmed they are. In between there's a little bit of actual legal work, with Dylan taking on a pro bono custody work (in court in his first week? Really?) and Addy rushing to complete a motion and get it filed with the court in time.

The closest thing they have to a mentor is Rowdy (Norbert Leo Butz, who steals a couple of scenes), the partner who recruited them and occasionally joins them for an after-work shot. But he flits in and out so quickly, it's hard to get a good read on him.

The actors all do a good enough job with the material they're given; there are no real false notes that get played in the ensemble. But they also don't really elevate the material -- there's no performance, save possibly for a few brief moments from Butz, that demands your attention.

So we're left with what's basically a pleasant-enough, mildly entertaining show that, it must be said, is at least a good match in tone for the rest of ABC's Thursday lineup, "Grey's" and "Private Practice." But it lacks the ability to command attention the way those other shows do, a problem that will need to get fixed if "The Deep End" is to stay afloat.

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Photo credit: ABC