Lawyers don't make grandiose speeches on "Centre." They talk with their heads bowed into the papers they incessantly shuffle on their podiums, just as in real life. 
   The courtroom chatter is thick with indecipherable legal lingo and moves with a locomotive speed that visibly discomfits the
 defendants.





Lumet's '100 Centre St.'
a lion's roar for A&E

Famed director struts his craft in courtroom series
   
By Andrew Wallenstein

   The lure of a TV program doesn't always have to be the name of the person in front of the camera. Any doubt about that was dispelled by Ken Burns' documentary "Jazz," which more than doubled the average PBS audience in its debut last week.
     A&E is hoping the power of pedigree will work likewise for  "100 Centre St." (Mondays, 9-10 p.m. ET, began Jan. 15) its first original dramatic series.
     The draw behind the camera here is Sidney Lumet, the legendary film director behind classics like "Serpico" and "12 Angry Men." Although he earned his reputation in cinema, with 5 Oscar nominations to his credit, Lumet got his start in TV 40 years ago, directing episodes of "You Are There" and "Studio One" at the dawn of the medium.
    Still, no matter how distinguished a director might be, the average viewer is savvy enough to detect when a network is dusting off a dinosaur. Lumet hasn't had a hit in any medium in quite awhile, so rumors of his extinction are understandable. However, "Centre" proves this relic can still roar.
    Shot in high-definition video, "Centre" chronicles the proceedings at a Manhattan night court with riveting realism. Ordinarily, diving back into a realm NBC turned into a long-running but awful '80s sitcom responsible for the comic genius of Richard Moll (Bull the Bailiff) might not seem like a good idea.
    However, the excellence of "Centre" shouldn't be surprising, considering that Lumet's best work, including "The Verdict," has been situated in the legal arena.
    "Centre" was originally intended for NBC, but the Peacock passed and it's easy to see why: The series is so similar to "Law & Order" that it could be confused as yet another spin-off. But "Centre" may in fact be better than the vaunted "L&O" if its determination to present jurisprudence verite is any indication.
   Lawyers don't make grandiose speeches on "Centre"; they talk with their heads bowed into the papers they incessantly shuffle on their podiums, just as in real life (or at least Court TV). 
   The courtroom chatter is thick with indecipherable legal lingo and moves with a locomotive speed that visibly discomfits the defendants, whose lives hang in the balance. 
    There's not a trace of glamour anywhere; if David E. Kelley sent a member of either of his legal dramas, "The Practice" or "Ally McBeal," for a crossover episode, they'd get eaten alive.
    "Centre" concentrates on the limits of mercy. All of its characters struggle in their own way with handling their responsibilities without losing their humanity. There's Bobby Esposito (Joseph Lyle Taylor), a prosecuting attorney who can keep his drug-addicted brother out of jail if he erases a previous arrest from his record.
    Veteran thespian Alan Arkin acquits himself nicely as Joe Rifkind, a bleeding-heart judge nicknamed "Let 'Em Go Joe," whose liberal tendencies are put to the test when a thug kills a policewoman just hours after being set free in his courtroom.
    Aside from Arkin, the solid cast boasts no established actors. The only familiar face is Paula Devicq, who was outstanding on several seasons of Fox's "Party of Five" depicting a woman who suffered from bouts of depression. 
   In "Centre," she plays a trust-fund ingénue who flees her fate at a white-shoe firm run by her insufferable father by roughing it at the assistant district attorney's office. Her budding but awkward romance with Esposito will keep you coming back for future episodes.  For Lumet to hire Devicq validates a talent that could have been easily overlooked considering her work on a schmaltzy network series. But this is an actress to keep an eye on.
    "Centre" represents a crucial performance not just for Devicq, but A&E as well. Its failure to build on the success of its "Biography" franchise is responsible for its perception as a one-note network. 
   But with former Miramax executive Allen Sabinson in as senior vice president of programming, A&E is starting to take the right steps toward special-event fiction programming, from getting Mira Sorvino for a new version of "The Great Gatsby" to last week's announcement that Kenneth Branagh will headline a big-budget miniseries about famed Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton. Along with "Centre," A&E is making great strides toward its targeted older demographics.


-Andrew Wallenstein is the television critic for Media Life.


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