Hit or Sh**: CBS’ BULL

In this Crossfader series, our intricate and complex rating system will tell you definitively whether new television pilots are worth your valuable time. We call it: HIT OR SH**.

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If there’s anything CBS has truly succeeded at, it’s developing a formulaic approach to television. Despite the protests of your friends who insist that all good television can be found on platforms you have to pay for, CBS was the highest-watched network in 2015, and has been for some time now. (NCIS and THE BIG BANG THEORY are the network’s biggest moneymakers.) CBS succeeds by finding a formula that works and sticking to it, but even in rigid formulas there’s room for innovation, and changes could yield interesting and different results. CBS’ BULL is among the newest addition to the CBS lineup, but does it differentiate from the norm enough to appeal to you as well as your mom?

One of the most-touted things about BULL (and the most confusing) is that it’s loosely based on the early career of Phil McGraw, who ran a highly successful jury analysis firm. You might know Phil McGraw more commonly as Dr. Phil, the guy who was always on TV when you were sick and stayed at home. And who better than to play Dr. Phil than Michael Weatherly, formerly a main cast member on CBS’ hit series NCIS?

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The similarities are positively striking

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Weatherly’s Dr. Jason Bull is a psychologist that runs the firm Trial Analysis Corporation, or TAC, and uses the latest technology, as well as social media, to build a profile of jurors being used in a client’s trial in order to formulate legal defenses. The show’s pilot focuses on a teenage rich kid who is the defendant in a murder case involving a girl he met at a party in the Bahamas. Bull has to find a way to convince the jury to vote Not Guilty, and this is where things get a bit muddy.

One of the more interesting things about BULL is that since the main character isn’t actually a cop or any kind of law-enforcement official, it doesn’t necessarily matter to him whether he gets the bad guy or who actually did the crime. One of the subplots of the pilot is him trying to figure out what makes a particular person tick in order to get them to vote not guilty, thereby influencing other jurors to do so. The show uses a psuedo-SHERLOCK sort of trick where Bull looks at a juror and knows what they’re thinking or what headspace they’re in because the juror specifically “says” so. It’s nifty, works fairly well, but one narrative trick cannot support an entire pilot.

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Presented without comment

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Like I said before, Bull isn’t a cop, so in theory it shouldn’t matter whether he gets the bad guy or not. The show would do well to explore this, but instead BULL doesn’t know what it wants to be. Is it a crime procedural? Is it LAW AND ORDER? Wait, LAW AND ORDER is a crime procedural! BULL hits so many notes of your typical legal drama it’s basically an NCIS spin-off. Every act ends with the same kind of twist. The victim has a sordid history! Was it an actual criminal? Perhaps there’s another suspect! How’s she connected? Let’s find out! Wait, it was THIS person all along! BULL can’t deviate from its formula enough to make itself interesting.

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“This is all Donald P. Bellisario’s fault!”

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BULL’s formula also encapsulates its characters, which is a major flaw; everyone is so goddamn cartoonish. The head lawyer is an arrogant, elitist prick, who thinks Bull’s methods are ridiculous and unorthodox. The defendant is a spoiled rich kid, whose emotionally absent billionaire father likely contributed to his delinquency. That family is connected to another filthy rich family with a spoiled daughter, and are more dedicated to their reputation and their daughter than being less-than-reprehensible human beings. BULL also falls prey to a major issue I have with network shows, in that everyone has a snappy comeback all the time. It’s like everyone on Bull’s team underwent a banter workshop and they just trade quips all day in between using definitely illegal methods to gain information on those surrounding the trial. Bull himself is even the suave, intellectual ladies-man-with-a-tortured-past archetype. It’s so paint-by-the-numbers you can almost see the numbers if you look hard enough.

I also mentioned earlier that the show is loosely based on the early career of Dr. Phil, but the “loose” here is in reference to the fact it’s set it in the present time, and borrows the plot of PERSON OF INTEREST to factor in social media and what people willingly make known about themselves. While that makes the show somewhat relatable, it goes overboard quickly, and by that I confess that I was over the show when, less-than-two minutes in, the writers forced in their version of an advice meme, complete with sunburst pattern and Impact font. It started okay, with the cavalcade of citizens either denouncing or praising the American criminal justice system, but the moment the dank memes hit it was pretty much over for me.

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This is an actual frame from the pilot

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BULL suffers from being a network show, plain and simple. While the setup provides for interesting narrative opportunities, the show ultimately proves far too formulaic and even manages to confuse itself more often than not on what it truly wants to be. The characters are more like flat archetypes and it has yet to really do anything different or innovative. It’s a standard network corpse-of-the-week crime procedural and will probably prove to be insanely popular against all odds. Your mom will love it.

Verdict: Sh**

BULL airs on CBS on Tuesdays

Steven Porfiri is a Crossfader guest contributor that has been slowly learning what true patrician culture is about after spending a lifetime in Bakersfield, CA. In addition to Crossfader you can find him at Top Shelf Gaming.

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