On one side of the "Raising the Bar" soundstage is a sterile office space punctuated with old phones, metal filing cabinets and stacks of papers. On the other side: a far less drab enclave accented with modern office furniture, frosted glass partitions and minimalist Macs.
The more welcoming habitat represents a Manhattan public defender's office while the dreary opposing workplace serves as the district attorney's headquarters. Such distinction _ and any underlying similarity _ is the essence of TNT's new legal drama (premiering 10 p.m. EDT Monday) from TV producer Steven Bochco.
The Emmy-winning hitmaker enlisted Seton Hall University law professor David Feige, a former public defender who wrote the 2006 criminal justice system memoir "Indefensible," to help co-create and supervise "Raising the Bar." Feige said the series will _ finally _ accurately portray lawyers appointed to represent defendants at public expense.
Walking between the sets, Feige said TV shows "have gotten it so wrong," recalling that his office in the Bronx was "in a loft that was a converted ice factory. It had 40-foot ceilings. It was gorgeous."
Making the case for public defenders _ who are often contracted employees who can afford more comfortable workspaces than their government-employed peers _ extends beyond the office furnishings found on this soundstage: The ensemble drama features four fleshed-out characters.
"Everything that has ever portrayed our world has gotten it insultingly wrong," said Feige. "The portrayal of public defenders is as schlubby, disillusioned, generally incompetent people who can't get other jobs. The reality is that my Bronx office hired people from Harvard and Yale. ... Nobody believes it."
Feige temporarily relocated to Los Angeles to work on "Raising the Bar" with Bochco, the producer whose credits include "Hill Street Blues," "L.A. Law," "Over There" and "NYPD Blue."
At the center of "Raising the Bar" is actor Mark-Paul Gosselaar as Jerry Kellerman, a confrontational public defender who spars with a judge and sleeps with a prosecutor in the first episode. While the show isn't directly based on Feige's life, Kellerman shares several traits with Feige _ among them, the flowing mane he once sported during his time as a public defender.
"People are so obsessed with the hair," Gosselaar said on the set. "The truth is I was between roles, just being lazy and letting it grow out. When I came onto this project, both Stephen and David wanted me to keep it long. I think it really suits Jerry. David told me he really did go to trial with long hair, so it's not out of the realm of possibility."
The series co-stars Jane Kaczmarek from "Malcolm in the Middle" as hotheaded Judge Trudy Kessler, and Gloria Reuben, best known for her role as Jeanie Boulet on six seasons of "ER," as Kellerman's compassionate boss.
The cast of "Raising the Bar" has actors portraying just about every possible character in a courtroom setting _ except perhaps a transcriptionist.
"I don't want people to think the public defenders are the good guys, and the DA's office are the bad guys," said Melissa Sagemiller, who plays ambitious Assistant District Attorney Michelle Ernhardt. "We're going for the gray areas. I hope people are entranced with what Michelle does. She's not someone you can root for all the time."
On the Net:
Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.