Review: Bull 1×1 (US: CBS)

Based on real life… and every other legal procedural you've seen

In the US: Tuesdays, 9/8c, CBS

They say ‘write what you know’, but if everyone in TV does that, we’re going to be in a sorry state very soon. I’ve already lost track of the current number of shows airing, just having aired or that are in development that are based on the lives of one of the executive producers. There’s even a Judge Judy drama on the way. Do we really need that? I don’t think so.

I guess the idea is that it not only gives an air of verisimilitude to the show, as well as a built-in audience and ideas for stories that might otherwise never have occurred to the writers, it also insulates the writers from accusations of racism, implausibility and so on – “But that’s what actually happened!” they can say.

Trouble is that with a lot of these shows, either people’s lives are already remarkably similar to TV shows or somewhere in development, people’s life stories get squeezed into formats that allow the shows to run for 10, 13 or 24 episode seasons, hopefully up to a syndicatable 5-7 seasons or more. The result is they all still end up looking the same as one another and what you see is probably not what actually happened?

Take Bull, CBS’s new show, which is based on the life of Dr Phil McGraw. You know Dr Phil, right? Well, before being a stalwart of Oprah and then getting his own show, he was a ‘trial scientist’. Here he is explaining what that is to Bull star Michael Weatherly.

I say ‘based’, but the show’s creators say ‘inspired’. That suggests that it bares very little resemblance to watch Dr Phil’s life used to be like. Yep, development squeezed the real life out of it while it was shoving the story into a CBS procedural formatting box.

Nevertheless, there might be something true about it. I mean if you think Dr Phil is just a trite regurgitator of homely platitudes with little scientific basis that are designed to further his TV career rather than actually truly help people, which would be impossible anyway, Bull will just confirm your suspicions as it’s just a trite regurgitator of homely platitudes with little scientific basis that are designed to further a very standard legal procedural.

All the same, real or not, seen Justice? Seen Shark? Seen Lie To Me? Then you’ll have seen a whole bunch of very similar shows that were all better than Bull. There’s the standard older, slightly troubled central eponymous white guy who everyone thinks is brilliant and spends most of their time admiring. There’s the diverse team of slightly less brilliant, slightly more personality-free helper monkeys who are going to get significantly less time for character development over the course of the series. There’s the endless stream of supposed pieces of wisdom that are actually just blunt over-simplifications. There’s the never-ending series of false trails before the eventual resolution. There’s blunt talking at anyone who’s not ‘with the programme’.

About the only thing different is the inclusion of a slightly punky computer girl (Annabelle Attanasio), which is more of a head nod to the NCIS audience Weatherly is hopefully taking with him.

If this is an advert for ‘trial science’, it’s also a big epic failure. While it may (or may not) be an accurate representation of what goes on behind the scenes with ‘mirrored juries’ (seen them in Justice and Shark – soz) et al, trying to pass off “she’s thinking of him as being like her son” as profound is a surefire loser. If people are paying big money for this, I’ve got this great wire transfer scheme they might want to hear about.

Bull‘s not without the occasional innovation: I quite liked the way the various members of the jury Weatherly was analysing from afar seemingly spoke their inner desires to him and his ‘too long, didn’t read’ was a nice rejoinder to something from a millennial.

But those moments are fleeting. Unless you like watching TV shows that are just like all those other TV shows that you like – well, it is CBS – give Bull a wide berth.