September 16, 2010 at 12:50 PM EDT

Jimmy Smits is an immensely likable actor, which only makes all the messy ideas and vainglory that clog Outlaw more disappointing. He’s playing Cyrus Garza, a Supreme Court justice known for his conservative positions and high-living habits (gambling, one-night-stands galore). On Wednesday night’s premiere, Garza chucked the first part of that description — resigning from the Court to go into private practice as a litigator. He still chases high-stakes games and skirts, but now, because of the death of his father, a lauded liberal civil-rights lawyer, he’ll devote his professional life to helping the deserving accused.

A lot of time was spent introducing us to the supporting cast that will theoretically lower the age of the Outlaw audience demo to make it work for advertisers, if not for the rest of us. Thus we got a few puppy-dog clerks eager to lap up Garza’s words of wisdom, including one with a crush on our outlaw. And there’s an investigator on the team who’s all slinkiness and single-entendre (“You wanna get into my pants, right?”). Really, poor Carly Pope, as Lucinda Pearl, had to deliver one line after another about how hot she is and how everyone wants to have sex with her, and the team with each other, and any other combination you can think of. It’s as though NBC looked at The Good Wife and said, “Hey, that Kalinda character — let’s rip that off but don’t be coy about her sexuality!”

But Lucinda isn’t the big problem with Outlaw — it’s Garza. It’s impossible to buy the notion that, out of grief, this prominent man would suddenly reverse his long-held beliefs. I know: We’re not supposed to think Garza went from conservative to liberal, but rather that he’s gone from being a political game-player to an apolitical truth-seeker. (Next week, the show tries to counteract the liberal/conservative impression by having Garza defend an Arizona cop accused of brutality while upholding the state’s tough anti-immigration law.)

The problem is, no matter what way Garza tilts, Outlaw is constructed to have Smits deliver opposition-melting final summations every week. Instead of being a star vehicle that shows off Smits at his best, Outlaw ends up seeming more like a vanity project and, whenever his legal team is surrounding him, a near-parody of law shows ranging from Perry Mason to Boston Legal.

Hey, did you know that Garza is considered a maverick, an outlaw? In the premiere, Garza was asked, “How does it feel to be an outlaw?” In the second episode next week, the extravagant admiration of Garza by everyone he encounters continues. “You really do want to be an outlaw,” says a prosecutor. (She’s played by Deirdre Lovejoy, States Attorney Rhonda Pearlman on The Wire.) The prosecutor is being sarcastic… sort of. The gleam the script or the director probably asked that she put in her eyes tell us she thinks this Garza guy is cool.

I’m making a distinction here between character and actor: Smits is fine — he keeps the creepy element of Garza’s “outlaw” side to a minimum, and he commits to the big courtroom speeches.

But Outlaw? More like Ouch-law.

Agree? Disagree?

Follow: @kentucker

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