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matt zoller seitz

Seitz on Made in Jersey: Cynically Designed for Maximum Likability

"Cacti" -- Darlene (Donna Murphy) and Martina (Janet Montgomery) discuss Bonnie's new boyfriend, on MADE IN JERSEY.

In the new drama Made in Jersey, Working Girl meets Erin Brockovich, and together they leap into the CBS pit of blandness and drown.

Too bad; the setup seems foolproof: A young, beautiful, working class Italian-American woman from the Garden State lands a job at a white-shoe law firm, where her street smarts give her the edge over entitled snots who figure that her big hair hides a smaller-than-average brainpan. Pop culture excels at populist sentiment, duh; therefore, Made in Jersey should have been a guaranteed winner, a Horatio Alger story for the 21st century, a show destined to be a hit despite nitpicky critics. And who knows? Maybe it’ll be a sensation regardless — the sort of show people build viewing parties around.

But did it have to seem so calculated, so pandering, so drama-free? From the minute our heroine Martina Garretti  (played mostly convincingly by a Brit, Janet Montgomery) strides onscreen, you know she’s got everything under control. She’s gorgeous, humble, educated, wise, patient, resourceful, and so virtuous that when she gets a chance to pay back snooty naysayers who didn’t believe in her, she lets the moment pass or phrases a putdown so wittily that the other person can’t think fast enough to respond. The daughter of a beautician (Donna Murphy, wasted), she’s the most successful person in her suburban Jersey clan, the first to go college, but judging from the reactions at a family gathering, none of her kin resents her. How could they? She’s perfect.  

Kyle MacLachlan costars as the firm’s founder, Donovan Stark, who takes a shine to her after she chimes into a staff meeting about a murder case with a cockamamie theory that ends up being the cornerstone of their defense. Would you believe that Martina, a newcomer at the firm, gets assigned to the case, and that she bonds with the defendant, who’s accused of murdering her professor, on a personal level that her entitled colleagues couldn’t manage? And that she ends up in court doing an Atticus Finch, wowing the jury with her sincerity and intelligence? 

There are some okay grace notes in this pilot, particularly Martina using her knowledge of grooming and wardrobe choices to give the defendant a tactical makeover, and the heroine’s rapport with River (Felix Solis), a goateed, fedora-clad investigator who appreciates Martina’s earthiness. But every line, every scene, every beat feels so machine-tooled, so obsessively calculated for maximum focus-group likability, that I couldn’t care. This show is a wish-fulfillment fantasy, all right, if your wish is to be a plucky robot.

Photo: Eric Liebowitz/CBS