There are a lot of situations when the things you look for in a TV show as a critic diverge from what you appreciate as a viewer. As a viewer, I can enjoy getting lost in a fluffy, pointless show because that is what I need at that particular moment of my life. But as a critic, I can look at the show and have profound difficulties getting past the predictable nature of the series.
But there are times when I have the desires of the viewer and the critic converge and that's usually when I'm faced with a show that could be so much better than what eventually made it onto the screen. I'd rather have a show miss spectacularly than watch a series that misuses the talents of the cast and the crew. That creative waste makes the viewer and the critic in me cranky and exasperated. And unfortunately, that's the attitude I'm left with after watching the premiere episode of the new Michael Weatherly series "Bull."
A new drama starring Weatherly is arguably as close to a slam dunk as you can get on broadcast television in 2016. He's coming off of a long run on "NCIS" and it's a stint that ended amicably and on a positive note for the fans. Viewers love the guy and he's developed this comfortable on-camera charm that is disarming. There's a reason why "NCIS" producers cast Robert Wagner to play his father on that show. Like Wagner, Weatherly
has that casual sexiness and twinkle in his eyes that makes him fun to watch.
I don't know precisely what decisions led to Weatherly deciding to pick "Bull" as his new show, but it's easy to see some of the thinking behind the move. He didn't want to play another cop, he wanted a role with a bit more depth and moral ambiguity. But he also wanted a role that would still leave him room to be glib and charming. Even if the charm is masking a bit of turmoil beneath the surface.
But as I watched the pilot of "Bull," you can also see the behind-the-scenes forces that make the episode a frustrating mess. You can almost physically see the efforts by the network and the show's producers to dance along the line of being edgy without taking the chance of alienating anyone. "Bull" can easily be a huge mass audience hit and given Weatherly's charm, it likely will be that no matter how flawed. But you can see the conflicts for the soul of the show in nearly every scene.
In "Bull," Michael Weatherly plays Dr. Jason Bull, the founder of a wildly successful trial consulting firm. The premise is loosely based on the life of Dr. Phil McGraw, and he also co-wrote the pilot. Other than the trial consulting angle, it's not clear whether the Dr. Phil connection helps or hurts the show's image. This may well be a reasonably accurate representation of Dr. Phil's pre-talkshow life. But there are two problems with his connection. Aside from the fact that the show is set in the present, long after Dr. Phil's court experience, I'm not convinced that any viewers are tuning in because of the Dr. Phil connection. In fact, I'd argue it probably hurts the show, especially since it's unlikely anyone in America is thinking to themselves "Hey, you know who should play a young Dr. Phil? Michael Weatherly!"
The bigger problem with the show's premiere is that it never quite develops out a consistent tone. Dr. Bull and his team are no doubt very pricey and I understand that he probably isn't taking on a lot of pro-bono cases. But the show's first case centers around the son of a tech billionaire who has been charged with murder. Dr. Bull expends a great deal of charming effort manipulating the lawyers, the jury and as much as possible, the final verdict. It's a cynical job, particularly when it's being paid for a father who makes Peter Thiel look like a charming saint.
There's nothing wrong with that cynical take on American justice and in fact that would make for a great procedural drama. Weatherly is certainly charming enough to keep viewers engaged, even of his character is unlikable at times and often manipulative. And watching the premiere, I wonder if that is the show that he envisioned when he signed on. But that's not the show CBS and the studio probably wanted to see and as a result, the tone of show lumbers back and forth between Dr. Bull being a lovable scamp and a heartless bastard. I suppose the hope is that viewers would think of Dr. Bull as a kind cynic, and yes, that's a point of view that is ultimately unsustainable.
One illustration of the tonal confusion on the show is that the premiere episode was tweaked late in the process. It's hard to describe the change without spoiling the episode, but let's say that the original version had an ending that was ambiguous and implied that justice might not have been served by the verdict. A final scene was then stuck on the episode, which provides resolution in a way that paints Dr. Bull in the best possible light. And that's ultimately the problem with the premiere of "Bull." You're watching a show that continues to argue with itself on camera. "I'm cynical and evil! No, I'm not! Okay, maybe just a little! No, you love kids and puppies!."
You notice that I haven't mentioned the rest of the ensemble so far and that's because they don't have much of an impact during the premiere. CBS provided character info about the cast, but none of it is readily apparent in the premiere. So at least at this point, they are just cannon fodder for the Dr. Bull storyline.
There is one guest actor who steals the scene she's in and she deserves some recognition. Samantha Jones plays a juror who turns out to be the pivotal vote on the jury. For much of the episode, she's just another silent face listening to the case, but she has a scene with Michael Weatherly after the trial that might be my favorite scene in the premiere. She's saddled with some boilerplate dialogue, but her acting is filled with such emotion and resonance that it elevates the entire scene. She brings a clarity to the tone of the show that is lacking in a lot of other scenes. She's a fine actress and if I was casting a drama, she would be someone I'd strongly consider for a recurring role.
As for "Bull," like all Michael Weatherly fans, I'll continue watching for now. Given the show is following "NCIS," it's likely to have a spectacular ratings opening and I suppose that's a good thing. I'd like to see the show continue but I hope that good ratings don't distract producers away from the very real tonal problems with the show. Viewers deserve a better show and frankly, so does Michael Weatherly.