Raising the Bar

Way back in June, I went on a day trip to three sets of TNT original shows like Saving Grace and The Closer and, while this is the last piece from that awesome day, the first set we visited was the brand new TNT series Raising the Bar, created by TV legend Steven Bochco along with lawyer-turned-writer David Feige. The show takes a unique look at the legal procedural drama, focusing equal attention on the prosecution, the defense as well as the judge who's in "the middle" of it all.

The series stars Mark-Paul Gosselaar as Jerry Kellerman, a passionate young public defender, Gloria Reuben as Rosalind Whitman, his equally-passionate but protective boss, along with Teddy Sears as Patrick Woolsley and Natalia Cigluiti as Bobbi Gilardi on the prosecution side. On the defense side, Melissa Sagemiller plays Michelle Ernhardt, a justice-driven attorney in the DA office, Currie Graham plays Nick Balco, her assistant DA boss and J. August Richards rounds out the team as Marcus McGrath. Both of these sides have to deal with the imposing force of Judge Trudy Kessler, played by Jane Kaczmarek, who has political aims at becoming the next district attorney, with Jonathan Scarfe playing her law clerk, Charlie Sagansky.

The press were divided into groups and placed at separate tables and the talent was grouped together as well and they rotated from table to table, talking to everyone. The first group to sit down at my table was Gloria Reuben, Melissa Sagemiller, Teddy Sears and Natalia Cigluiti, and here's what they had to say about this new legal drama.

(Reporter's Note: I apologize, to the talent that were present and to the readers, if a lot in these conversations are missed but, due to the amount of cross-talk in the room, there are portions of these interviews that were simply inaudible.)

Gloria Reuben, Melissa Sagemiller, Teddy Sears and Natalia Cigluiti

Can you describe your characters a bit for us?

Teddy Sears: Sure. I play a character named Richard Woolsley. Richard is a public defender along with Natalia and Mark-Paul. Richard comes from a very patritioned background, a lot of old money, but Richard, I guess what it comes down to is Richard can't do anything else besides what he's doing. This is what gets him out of bed in the morning. The commitment to the client, the passion, representing the under-served, I think all public defenders are going to be in that vein. That's Richard. Richard is sort of navigating his life outside of his father's shadow and he's dealing with the disapproval of his father and there's a little bit of love stuff that might come up.

Do you have any conflict with Jane's character?

Teddy Sears: Unfortuntately, I don't, yet, but I'm looking forward to it.

Natalia, tell us about Bobbi Gilardi.

Natalia Cigliuti: I play Roberta "Bobbi" Gilardi, from Brooklyn, and Manhattan also. She's also a public defender, very passionate about her clientel. She has some personal issues that sometimes come into the courtroom, her emotions from that. It's really exciting because she's a new character that comes into this workplace.

Do you have any interesting overlaps with Jane's character or any others? Any male public defenders?

Natalia Cigliuti: With Jane, specifically, we just kind of go head-to-head. We have a little tit-for-tat thing.

Melissa, what about your character?

Melissa Sagemiller: I play Michelle Ernhardt and she's also going up against Jane's character, who's really scary and a lot of times, I've noticed Bobbi and her having conversations and stuff going on, so I can tell something is going on there.

Gloria, how does this show compare to Bochco's other series like NYPD Blue or others like that?

Gloria Reuben: I think it's similar in some ways - it's a different kind of genre, but it's similar in that we have these great relationships that we're drawn to. The stories are very complicated and it doesn't romanticize it, on both sides. It's told from the public defender's point of view, but it shows in a lot of places that justice is flawed, on both sides. That they're not always right.

So they don't close everything all tied up in a bow?

Teddy Sears: No, it's heartbreaking and even when you win, you lose, most of the time. Everyone has their agendas and, as public defenders, we want them back on the streets, living their lives, supporting their families. We have a responsibility to the people of New York and to their office and it's just ambiguous and so rarely wrapped up in a nice little bow and handed to you as a win. We were lucky enough to see a couple of episodes the other night.

What'd you think?

Teddy Sears: It's fantastic. It's heartbreaking. The cases that you become invested in as an audience member, they're not left with a sense of warm and fuzzies. It just makes you think.

Next up the duo of Jane Kazcamarek and Jonathan Scarfe and here's what they had to say to our group of reporters.

Jane Kazcamarek and Jonathan Scarfe

What we saw in the bus looked really good...

Jane Kazcamarek: In the bus?

We watched the trailer on the way over here and you were really good.

Jane Kazcamarek: You know, I always played lawyers and professional people and always had such a hard time getting auditions for comedies until I did a Neil Simon play on Broadway in 1991. Suddenly, casting directors said, 'Well, Neil Simon is funny, so maybe we can have her in for a comedy audition,' so I did comedy. I guess it's surprising to me that people think it's a surprise, because that's what I did for a long time, when you're an industry veteran as I am. I've been around awhile.

So how did this project come to you? Did you audition?

Jane Kazcamarek:Malcolm was on for seven years and, three kids later - my baby was two and a half when we started it and I had two more kids during then run - and I was really done. I had done my part as a person on a television show. I really wanted to be a woman and be with my kids.

Jonathan Scarfe: I wanted to get away from my kids, that's why I signed up.


Jane Kazcamarek: So, mostly what had been offered to me after Malcolm, were leads in comedies with big big parts and I really didn't want to work that much anymore. So, when things would come about, the first thing I would ask would be, 'Can I only work two days an episode?' If they can't make that deal then I wasn't interested. So, this one, we were able to make a deal and I had worked with Bochco 25 years ago on Hill Street Blues and I went in and had a nice meeting with him. We were both kind of in the same head about not killing yourself, about making television history anymore. You know, 14-hour days, I just don't know if I could do it anymore. I thought I would be in good company and then I IMDB'd the guy who was going to play Charlie.

Jonathan Scarfe: Now we get to the truth. Really, she wanted to show that she could make out with me.

Jane Kazcamarek: I kind of did.

What was it like coming to a network like TNT?

Jane Kazcamarek: It's much more of a relaxed schedule, knowing you're only doing 10 episodes.

Jonathan Scarfe: In terms of having a family life, it's great. It's way cooler. I think you get a lot more freedom. The network is run by an ex-actor. It's not just a guy who came from the business world, he came from the artistic world.

Has the art department given you some nice sets to work in?

Jane Kazcamarek: We have a courtroom... courtroom's are such dumps, and we've got the best of the dumps.

Jonathan Scarfe: I sit on a tuffet.

Jane Kazcamarek: Doing Sudoku.

Jonathan Scarfe: Did you read that article about that Australian case that was thrown out because the guy was doing Sudoku? That's what I wouldn't do. I would never have mine in the courtroom.

So what's it like working with Steven Bochco?

Jane Kazcamarek: He's so comfortable and knows so well what he's doing that he kind of lets you do your own thing, which is nice. He's not micro-managing everything and his son Jesse is our showrunner.

Jonathan Scarfe: He's actually given Jesse a lot of room to take this on as his own thing. Jesse is the guy that's been there.

What elements of you do you put in your character?

Jane Kazcamarek: That's an interesting question. I am very linear and I'm very punitive (Laughs).

Jonathan Scarfe: Angry.

Jane Kazcamarek: You know, she really follows the letter of the law and the character Mark-Paul Gosselaar plays, drives her crazy.

Jonathan Scarfe: I'm surprised you don't make him get a hair-cut

Your hair is in contempt.

Jonathan Scarfe: I know. Hello, friend-o.

Jane Kazcamarek: You know, I went to catholic school, my father worked in the Defense Department. I was kind of raise where you kind of toe the line. It's not hard for me. I think people, also, if you're in an environment where you're seeing case after case after case, it really opens your heart to the horror of your job, so I wouldn't be able to do it unless this character does shut that down so you can make these decisions without thinking about the human consequences of them.

Next up at our little roundtable were J. August Richards and Currie Graham, and here's what this duo had to say.

J. August Richards and Currie Graham

Can you tell us a little about your characters?

J. August Richards: My character's name is Marcus McGrath and he's a prosecutor for the series.

The right side of the law.

J. August Richards: You know, I'm so glad you say that because the show is potentially written from the point of view of public defenders. When I first got the script for the second episode we were doing, I was on the phone with our head writer and I said, 'So, I'm an asshole? My character is an asshole? If he is, please let me know so I can play it.' He said, 'No, you're not an asshole,' and I had to think about it for a really long time and, I've decided there are scenes in the story that are not included, so with every case I get, I envision the victim's mother or the victim's father coming into my office and crying their eyes out about how their kid was beat down. When I do my scenes, I'm just thinking about those parents that are devastated. It's a very different character for me because he's very passionate about justice and, to get in that mindset was a little bit of a stretch for me. So, that's my character. I just think about that blind lady with the scales when I play this character. It's been a great character. I'm having so much fun with it.

Currie Graham: I'm his boss, Nick Balco and, I don't know about that blind lady with the scales. He does, but I want them to think my way. I care about winning, about getting the emotional side out of the courtroom. I don't care how he feels, I want to win, I want to put people away, I want victories. I want to get out of my office, maybe into politics.

You're advertised as a ladykiller, as well.

Currie Graham: I don't know how many of them I'm going to kill... but I'm certainly going to try. I manipulate them into going out with me, it's like, 'Oh, you want something out of me? What do I get out of it?' I'm a misogynist, but I do it for a reason. I do it because law is a boys club and if you're going to be a woman, and you're going to be in a boys club, you better be tough. If you're going to be a litigator and you're going to make deals, you better be tough. I make this speech and I realize how important it was because I say, 'The problem with women lawyers is they all have this chip on their shoulder about playing with the boys.' I say that, 1) to hurt her feelings and 2) because you've gotta be strong.

How do you guys like the half-season format as opposed to working in a full season?

J. August Richards: I'm a workaholic, so this is interesting, especially in this current climate. I love to work. I've done a 22-a-year series for awhile, and it's tough. 8 months, 12 hours a day, but our show shot at night so it was even tougher, but I could work night and day. I think it would be cool that this would open up for me to do a play or a movie or something like that.

So, Currie, this is law show number two for you, after Boston Legal.

Currie Graham: This character is so different from the one I'm in on Boston Legal. This guy is much funnier and it's been fun. I talk about this a lot because the thing I like about this show is it's an opportunity for the audience to root for the underdogs, an opportunity for the audience to go, 'Oh, these people nobody gives a shit about and someone finally gives a shit about them' and then get into helping the downtrodden. Then there's our side, which is like, 'They f*&%ing did it. Guilty.' We have both sides. It's a more realistic view.

Lastly, we were joined by the trio of star Mark-Paul Gosselaar and co-creators Steven Bochco and David Feige to wrap-up our roundtable sessions. Here's what this trio had to say.

Mark-Paul Gosselaar and Co-Creators Steven Bochco and David Feige

Can you tell us quickly how you all came together?

David Feige: The short version is I was in my bathrobe in my 380 square-foot studio and my phone rang and it was Steven Bochco, the only person in Hollywood to whom I'd sent my book. He said, 'I loved your book. There's no show here.' I hung up the phone and thought, 'You know, this is great. Steven Bochco liked my book.'

Steven Bochco: Then David wrote me a very long email telling me why I was full of shit. And I thought, 'This guy is really passionate,' and I love that and we should be working with passionate people. I called him back and said, 'I still don't want to do that book, but if you want to start with a blank page and do something with a broader point of view, I'm game for that.' That's how it started.

How did TNT come into this show?

Steven Bochco: I had, literally, coincidentally happen to have a meeting with Michael Wright (head of TNT), just to meet and greet.

David Feige: I had never been to a pitch meeting. It was a done deal.

Steven Bochco: Within the course of the conversation, Michael said, 'It would be great if we could do something here.' I said, 'I'm available.' He said, 'Is there anything you've been looking to do?' I said, 'I've been thinking about doing a show about busted sense of justice in New York,' and, literally, within 30 seconds, he said OK. I got the pilot before I even spoke to him (David).

David Feige: Right. Then the phone rang and he explained the larger thing and asked if it was something I wanted to do and he said, 'Good, because that's a show I know I can sell, more accurately, I already sold it.' I remember being completely dumbstruck.

So, Mark, how did you get in the mix?

Mark-Paul Gosselaar: I called to meet him (Feige), to have lunch with him. They said you've gotta meet him, he's out of his head. So I met him for lunch, and having read his script and having read his book, I was just putting it all together.

This half-season format has really been popular the last few years. Has that been a more ideal format to work in?

Mark-Paul Gosselaar: I could do more.

Steven Bochco: Well, this is a short order and I think a part of that was because the writers strike.

So it wasn't because of a potential actors strike?

Steven Bochco: No, I don't think so. I think a normal TNT order is 13 or 14 episodes, so it's nice. 15 episodes, to me, is a perfect number, because once you really start to get exhausted, you're right there. 22, it's like 'Oh my God.' It's like the Bataan death march.

So what has Bochco taught you in this experience?

David Feige: Everything. I came in blank, knowing nothing. As Steven will happily tell you, the first few scripts were the most miserably schizophrenic pieces of garbage ever written by anyone. I started from scratch and he was unbelievably, almost unimaginatively patient, and took me to school. I would get 15 pages, scene by scene, 'You're overwriting here. You're underwriting here. There's no development here. This guy is a caricature. Why are you doing that? You're moving to fast, you need to let this scene breathe more.' I'm not necessarily a quick study, but Steven is mercilessly persistent. I'm unbelievably lucky.

Mark, can you talk about your character a little bit?

Mark-Paul Gosselaar: My character, Jerry Kellerman, is a public defender. We've used the words relentless, fearless and passionate. He just feels that he's the only one who cares about his clients in an environment and a system that doesn't have the time or the resources to put the effort in to caring so much. I hate the word "idealistic.' I just think he is who he is. Much of it is how I feel, how this man (David Feige) conducted himself, when he was a public defender for 15 years and listening to his stories and how he feels about his clients. That's basically how Jerry is.

Steven Bochco: You have to have the emotional constitution of a bull. You really have to deal with human consequence, day in and day out.

David Feige: And you lose all the time.

After this last segment, we were done and everyone just kind of started randomly chatting with the actors as they were making their way out. I told Melissa Sagemiller that I loved her Showtime mini-series Sleeper Cell and asked her if she'd heard about the possibility of a third season. She thanked me and said she did hear a rumor that they were coming back, but couldn't tell me for certain. Great success! I hope that show comes back. I also chatted with Gloria Reuben for a bit, who recognized my name from a conference call I did with her for her one-episode-return to ER. She also told me to look for a different sort of look between the first two episodes, because they got a new director of photography in the second episode and it is "vastly different, but in a good way," according to Reuben. Both Melissa and Gloria were wonderful to talk to and incredibly nice, not to mention beautiful. After that, they led us into their courtroom set and we got to look around a bit before shuffling back onto the bus.

Well, that wraps up My Day With TNT coverage. I hoped you enjoyed it and don't forget to tune in to TNT on Monday, September 1 at 10 PM ET only on TNT.