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New series review: Canterbury's Law (Fox)

Elizabeth Canterbury (Julianna Margulies) lays into another witness.

Premiering: Monday, March 10th at 7 p.m. (central) on Fox
Starring: Julianna Margulies, Ben Shenkman, Trieste Kelly Dunn, Keith Robinson, Aidan Quinn, Terry Kinney, James McCaffrey
Produced by: Denis Leary, Jim Serpico, Walon Green, Dave Erickson

Fox is swimming in Shark-infested waters here, and yes, that's an intended reference to the James Wood-led CBS courtroom series.

Woods is a defense attorney turned prosecutor while Julianna Margulies plays strictly defense on Canterbury's Law. Otherwise they're alike in their brow-beatings of young staffs, self-destructive tendencies and commandeering of nearly every scene. It's good to be a star.

The premiere episode's opening minute finds Elizabeth Canterbury (Margulies) popping out of the sack she's sharing with a private investigator who's not her husband. She's late, she's late, for a very important court date.

"I've become a damn vaudeville act," she grouses before rushing off.

Still, she savors a good media circus.

"I think a lawyer that dodges a 'sound bite' oughta be disbarred," says Canterbury, who's defending a young man accused of murdering and dismembering the son of purported community pillars.

Her foil is a scheming D.A. named Zach Williams (Terry Kinney), who in effect is the show's Hamilton Burger. (Hey kids, that's a reference to the beaten-down prosecutor in Perry Mason, who never won a single case in nine seasons of trying.)

Mason could be a little self-important at times. But in his personal life, the guy was stiffer than an Exxon boardroom.

Not so Elizabeth Canterbury, a frequent straight booze imbiber whose recurring dalliances with P.I. Frank Angstrom (James McCaffrey) are an escape from her rocky marriage to Matt Furey (a little-seen Aidan Quinn). The mysterious disappearance of their son has rendered Canterbury both guilt-ridden and prone to lashing out at both her staff and the hapless D.A., who in turn brands his adversary a "bottom-feeding bitch."

Canterbury's conscience and trouble-shooter is junior partner Russell Krauss (Ben Shenkman). He's on the receiving end of the show's most laughable snatch of dialogue. "You feckless puppet!" D.A. Zach thunders. "Where do you get the stones to accuse me?"

It's hard to determine whether Canterbury's other two law firm associates are feckless or not. In Monday's opener, Molly McConnell (Trieste Kelly Dunn) and Chester Grant (Keith Robinson) are thinly drawn to the point of being almost invisible.

Margulies has a porcelain complexion, tightly wound hair and some standout moments as the drama's deeply flawed pacesetter. She's an anti-heroine who at least doesn't do heroin -- not yet anyway. But Canterbury will do just about anything to win once she deems a defendant innocent. That includes jury-tampering and coaxing a client to commit perjury as a means of trapping the real murderer.

Denis Leary, one of the show's co-executive producers, is himself a basket case as firefighter Tommy Gavin on FX's Rescue Me. That show isn't known for its subtlety. And Canterbury's Law follows suit with an over-the-top courtroom climax that's meant to pack a wallop but instead badly misses.

An upcoming episode -- but not the second one -- finds Canterbury defending a throughly spoiled gossip girl whom many might want to see thrown in jail with a sadistic pack of she-wolves. But in some ways that's one of the series' strong points. Most defendants aren't wronged celestial beings of the sort that Perry Mason represented in a bygone TV era.

Canterbury's Law likely will result in a hung jury among viewers. There's much to appreciate in Margulies' strong center-ring performance. But both the series and her character fall well short of perfection.

Grade: B-minus