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NEW SEASON: NBC's Outlaw is almost indictable at first, but its second episode makes a much stronger case

Jimmy Smits begins Outlaw as a Supreme Court justice with big gambling debts. Let the chips fall where they may. NBC photo

Premiering: Wednesday, Sept. 15th at 9 p.m. (central) before moving to regular Friday 9 p.m. slot on NBC
Starring: Jimmy Smits, David Ramsey, Ellen Woglom, Carly Pope, Jesse Bradford
Produced by: David Kissinger, John Eisendrath, Richard Schwartz, Conan O'Brien

Outlaw's premise remains preposterous, but now at least merits an asterisk. That's because its second episode is so markedly better than Wednesday night's premiere, which follows the high wattage season finale of NBC's America's Got Talent.

Let's review the not-to-believed basics. Jimmy Smits plays U.S. Supreme Court justice Cyrus Garza, who's first seen very publicly in a casino playing blackjack. "Bless me, father, for I need a four," he says. In real life that's an immediate viral video on youtube and an around-the-clock gabfest on the alleged cable news channels.

Not that this would actually happen in real life. Likewise highly improbable is Garza's subsequent, prolonged debate with an anti-death penalty protester stationed outside the casino. She's in his face and then in his bed sleeping off their sex together while the womanizing Garza watches an old and suddenly cathartic Dateline clip of his deceased liberal father, Francisco, who died in a car wreck while Cyrus sat beside him.

"He's wrong. He's just wrong," pops tells an interviewer. "And deep inside of him -- he knows it."

Appointed by George W. Bush, Cyrus is "arguably the most conservative justice on the Supreme Court" and also the "Sports Shooting Ambassador of the Year," according to a sign in the casino he frequents.

But he's about to flip after first hiring a slinky, sexy private eye named Lucinda Pearl (Carly Pope). She's first seen lounging in Garza's office in a short skirt and black leather jacket. Smack-talkin' Lucinda -- "Well, I prefer strip poker, but I'm in" -- will be the newest member of Garza's crusading team of right-wrongers.

Their first case is a condemned man convicted of killing a cop whose attorney has petitioned the Supreme Court for a stay of execution. Garza breaks a 4-4 deadlock before abruptly resigning from the court to represent the same man he sided with as a justice. This very much vexes a right-wing senator who earlier had told Garza, "We put you in there. We can take you out."

Now that Garza has opted out, "you're on your own, pal," the sinister senator sneers. "I'd suggest you get a bodyguard." The implication is that Garza is being targeted for assassination. And oh yeah, he also has run up $250,000 in gambling debts.

So there you have it. Perfectly plausible, huh? Outlaw co-producer John Eisendrath, asked about the "heightened reality" at hand during the recent network summer "press tour," preferred to position the show as "in some ways a little bit of a fantasy. Wouldn't you want this lawyer and this legal team to come to your city to represent you in the case that matters the most to you?" he asked your friendly content provider.

Co-producer David Kissinger, son of former secretary of state Henry Kissinger, agreed there's a "certain amount of license" taken in Outlaw. But back in his dad's heyday, Supreme Court justice William O. Douglas had quite a colorful streak, he noted. "The current group is probably, given the process that they have to go through, a little bit tamer." But with Douglas as a distant template, Garza's deportment is "not as far-fetched as I think you're suggesting," Kissinger contended.

Sorry, not buyin' it. But the premise isn't the only problem with Wednesday's unveiling of Outlaw. Smits' acting also is grating, whether he's barking out orders to his team or later sermonizing in a courtroom.

Conan O'Brien's Conaco productions is a partner in this enterprise. And it's almost as if he's sabotaging NBC with a series that initially seems ready-made for parody on his upcoming TBS late night show. He had a fine time twitting Walker, Texas Ranger on the Peacock's old Late Night with Conan O'Brien. So maybe Outlaw could step in someday. This is after all, a show where Garza's most trusted aide, Al Druzinsky (David Ramsey), asks the bossman, "How does it feel to be an outlaw?"

"Feels great," Garza says while "I Shall Be Released" supplies the musical backdrop. Guh-roan.

Meanwhile, sexy P.I. Lucina keeps lobbing sexual double entendres at semi-uptight team member Eddie Franks (Jesse Bradford). Such as when he's grillin' burgers and stuff at an episode-closing party while she snipes, "Just keep your meat on the plate."

Best keep that wiener in a bun, too. But after a truly dreadful pilot episode, Outlaw resumes on Friday, Sept. 24th with a second hour that tackles Arizona's super-controversial immigration law with an intelligent and against-the-grain approach.

At issue is the near-fatal shooting of a legal Hispanic resident by a cop who first detains him for supposedly acting suspiciously. Garza ends up representing the cop, to the considerable consternation of the loyal Druzinsky. This pits him against a federal attorney who has branded the white cop a criminal racist. Ed Begley Jr. drops in to effectively play the judge in the case.

This Outlaw episode retains some ridiculous excesses, including an ongoing subplot in which young team member/law clerk Mereta Stockman (Ellen Woglom) retains her crush on Garza to the considerable delight of tart-tongued Lucinda. All in all, though, this is an interesting and uncommon take on a volatile issue, with Garza seemingly proceeding at cross purposes by heavily stocking the jury with Hispanics. Smits' acting also is appreciably better in this episode. And the script is much improved.

So the jury is still somewhat out on Outlaw, which makes a terrible first impression and then regroups pretty impressively. Maybe there's still a way to make this work.

GRADES: Opening episode -- D; followup episode -- B+