Second Screen: Underneath Bull’s Style and Smarts, There’s Real Depth Too

Jim Hemphill sings the praises of the incredibly enjoyable CBS procedural Bull, which returns for its third season tonight.

Roger Ebert once said that a movie isn’t about what it’s about, it’s about how it’s about what it’s about. I think that’s even more true of network television, where the difference between a passable show and a good one (and between a good one and a great one) is often down to the way in which the makers play with and subtly vary well-worn formulas. The immensely entertaining and ambitious CBS show Bull, which begins its third season tonight, is a case in point. A smart, stylish and very funny drama that premiered in the fall of 2016 with a killer pedigree – Donnie Brasco and Quiz Show writer Paul Attanasio is one of the show’s creators, Steven Spielberg is an executive producer, and indie auteur Rodrigo Garcia directed the pilot – Bull reinvents and reinvigorates both the procedural and the courtroom drama with consistent verbal wit, visual elegance and one of the most compelling protagonists on television. Under Attanasio’s guidance, the series started strong, and when Moonlighting creator Glenn Gordon Caron took over as the showrunner for season two, it got even better, developing into what it is now: a drama of intense moral seriousness with the breezy charm and fast badinage of a classic comedy by Howard Hawks or George Stevens.

The series focuses on Jason Bull (Michael Weatherly), a psychologist who runs a trial analysis company that uses an intricate combination of technology, research, behavioral science and intuition to determine how attorneys, clients, witnesses and jurors are thinking. On the surface, it’s standard procedural stuff, as Bull and his team take on a different case and mystery each week, but Caron and his writing staff transcend the conventions to tackle thorny philosophical questions about truth, interpretation, ethics and identity. The show is both razor sharp in terms of its clarity and profoundly sophisticated in its grasp of the complexity of human nature; the second season has the breadth and depth of one of Scott Turow’s great legal novels, and the density of the material is all the more impressive for how effortless Caron makes it seem. Tonally, Bull is only a shade darker than Caron’s classic rom-com Moonlighting, but the best episodes linger in the mind with haunting resonance; in the “Survival Instincts” episode written by Pam Wechsler and directed by Dennis Smith, for example, there’s a chilling image of a “guest room” in which a kidnap victim has been held that lasts for only a few seconds but conveys a sense of trauma that echoes throughout the story and beyond.

Freddy Rodriguez and Michael Weatherly in Bull

This kind of narrative economy is what gives each of Bull’s 43-minute episodes the rich satisfactions of a two-hour feature film, and the economy manifests itself in different ways depending on the director. In “Bad Medicine,” writer Erica Peterson crafts a wrenching story of a Virginia doctor arrested for buying CBD oil in New York (where it is legal) and then transporting it across state lines for her patients and her ailing son. Director Bethany Rooney beautifully underscores one of the key injustices of the case – that the defendant’s arrest is largely a matter of geography – by framing the action in compositions that consistently remind the viewer of the scene’s context, whether it be urban New York or rural Virginia. New York in general has become a much more significant component in Bull’s overall design throughout season two, with the action taken out into the streets in a manner reminiscent of 1970s and ’80s Sydney Pollack and Sidney Lumet; the series has a cinematic vibrancy thanks to the excellent location work by Shane Haden, who consistently finds backdrops for the action that are both visually striking and revelatory of character and theme. Something else that stands out about Bull that ties in with the New York setting: it has the best background acting on network TV. Like those great Lumet courtroom dramas to which it owes so much, Bull is populated by great New York faces, not to mention terrific guest stars – one of the pleasures of the series is seeing superb character actors like Roma Maffia, Ron Canada and Matthew Lawler pop up in small parts.

Anchoring it all is Weatherly’s magnetic performance in the title role; I’ve been a fan of Weatherly’s work since I first noticed him in Whit Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco, but he’s never been better than he is here. Jason Bull’s combination of self-assuredness, moral ambiguity, empathy and probing intelligence gives the actor the role of his career, and he plays it with both force and nuance in every episode. It doesn’t hurt that he gets strong support from an excellent ensemble that includes Geneva Carr, Chris Jackson, Jaime Lee Kirchner and Freddy Rodriguez; their palpable sense of camaraderie is one of the show’s most infectious and reliable pleasures, and under Caron’s guidance all of the characters have evolved and been led down new avenues of exploration at an unusually swift rate for network television. On most procedurals, character development comes slowly, as though the writers are banking their best ideas in order to sustain their series for as many seasons as possible, but Caron, his writers, and actors are confident enough to go for broke in every episode, trusting that the characters and premises they’ve established will always be able to yield interesting material.

This confidence extends to the visual style, which has become both more expressive and more restrained in season two; the camera doesn’t whip around as much, but when it does move, there’s a purpose to the framing that comes from the content and the form being inextricably linked. The series contains some of the most subtle and deft shifts in point of view anywhere on network television (or premium cable, for that matter), partly due to the high quality of the writing and partly thanks to a visual style favoring depth, detail, and frames within frames that allow the viewer to constantly reexamine the action from different perspectives. The production design by Sarah Frank is vital in this regard, as the modular configuration of Bull’s headquarters allows for more diverse and lively blocking than one usually finds in television; it also allows individual directors more flexibility in putting their own signature on the show, which is far more formally dynamic than many series with more acclaim and award nominations, and more beautiful – the cinematography by John Aronson and Derick Underschultz bathes the actors in a warm, textured glow reminiscent of Michael Ballhaus’ best work in films like The Fabulous Baker Boys and Sleepers.

One of Caron’s signatures as a writer and director has always been his interest in the intersection between the personal and the professional: in how we’re defined by our work or not, and in how the work is affected by our personal lives and vice versa. It’s a central issue in Moonlighting, Medium, and in Caron’s masterpiece, the 1988 theatrical drama Clean and Sober, and in the final episodes of Bull’s second season he explores it in a manner different from his previous work. In season one, Weatherly played Bull as a man in almost total control of his craft and the people around him, and it was a huge part of the series’ appeal – it’s always fun to identify with a character who’s the best at what he does. In season two, the cracks begin to show, as Bull confronts the fact that everything not related to his professional life is a failure; without disavowing or reversing anything we’ve learned about the character previously, Caron and Weatherly reveal the contradictions and self-destructive impulses at the hero’s core, leading to a terrific cliffhanger finale that sets the groundwork for season three. Weatherly’s work in this regard is as good as anything currently on television, as he manages to convey the character’s inner tensions to the audience while convincingly hiding those tensions from the other characters on the show. I have no idea how he does it, but this invisibility of technique is key to the greatness of both his character and the show as a whole – like its title character, Bull is a show of deceptively slick surfaces that yields more and more dimension the closer you look.

Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble With the Truth, which is currently available on DVD, Amazon Prime, and iTunes. He also hosts a podcast series on the American Cinematographer website and serves as a programming consultant at the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.