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April 16, 2014

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The Defenders calls on Cristalli & Saggese to make Vegas its home court

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CBS

Jim Belushi and Jerry O’Connell in The Defenders on CBS.

Note: The following story appears in the new issue of our sister publication VEGAS magazine, which was to premiere with a party tonight at Gold Boutique Nightclub & Lounge at Aria.

The receptionist speaks to the attorney in a whisper.

"Mr. Harris got married last night," she says, tilting her head toward a man seated nearby with a stricken look on his face, "and he needs an annulment."

The attorneys nod. They've handled these types of ill-conceived matrimonial cases before.

It happens in Vegas.

The attorneys are Jim Belushi and Jerry O'Connell, so you expect there will be both drama and comedy usurped from this episode. The scene plays out in "The Defenders," the new crime "dramedy" series new to CBS's fall primetime schedule. (The hourlong show airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m.)

The show is based on the dynamic personalities and distinctive, Vegas-centric cases at the law firm of Cristalli & Saggese, renamed Kaczmarek & Morelli for the show. Belushi's character, Pete Kaczmarek, is modeled for Michael V. Cristalli. O'Connell's portrayal of partner Nick Morelli is based on Marc Saggese.

The 40-year-old Cristalli and 37-year-old Saggese, who have been law partners for seven years, talked of the show's development and their roles as consultants. I started with the obvious:

WHAT IS IT LIKE BEING PORTRAYED ON TV?

Cristalli: It's been a surreal experience, to be honest. You have to remember that it's a drama, not a reality show. It's based upon our lives, but is fictional in nature. You can take some liberties to make it more dramatic and interesting and comedic, but the basis of the story is real. Jim and Jerry spent a week (in Las Vegas) studying us. ... Jim is a fine dramatic actor who captures the sense of cynicism we sometimes have, because you can't take this job so seriously. You need some humor to keep yourself from having a nervous breakdown.

Saggese: It's quite an honor. I think (Belushi and O'Connell) show that we're partners who are fighting the good fight, which so difficult and thankless. I think they've done an excellent job of portraying this job. They've been able to capture we use our sense of humor to keep our sanity, how we cope with the stresses with dealing with people's lives and these heavy-duty issues without going insane.

HOW ARE YOU DIRECTLY INVOLVED IN THE SERIES?

Cristalli: We're consultants; we're involved with many of the creative aspects of what they're trying to achieve dramatically. We've been an integral part of the pilot and consulting in all of the episodes subsequently on a daily basis. If there might be a legal issue pertaining to story idea, we help with that. They still send us scripts. We're still in the loop and work with them regularly on the phone.

Saggese: We'll be consultants indefinitely, for as long as the series runs. Basis of the show are actual cases. There is an "A" case, which is the main plotline, and a "B" case. We feed the writers those cases. We are on the phone with them almost daily. There's a writers' room (at Studio City, Calif.), where up to 14 writers will be on conference calls, and we'll sometimes spend four or five hours a day in conversation, talking about, the characters' dialogue, it this is realistic legally, even minor details like what a judge might say as we walk out of the courtroom.

DO YOU HAVE ANY CONCERNS ABOUT YOUR FIRM OR YOURSELVES BEING DEPICTED ON A TV SHOW?

Cristalli: The thing that would concern me is demonstrating how we fight for the little guy accused of something, who is fighting against the almighty state — demonstrating the injustice of our justice system. It is the greatest in the world, but it is flawed. We want the drama to stay focused on the spirit of the firm. A concern would be that maybe people won't think this is really how we work, how we interact with each other, but there hasn't been anything negative with our involvement.

Saggese: I think it is being done so professionally, it is being produced with such high-caliber elements, including the budget and the set and the writers, I don't see a downside to it It's such quality product, as a depiction of my life and my cases I think it's going to be an absolute honor."

HOW IS THIS SHOW DIFFERENT FROM OTHER CRIME AND COURTROOM SERIES?

Cristalli: It shows the fight for the little guy, the defendant, and what that person faces when he or she is facing the Almighty State, what it's like to face that power and trumped-up charges and feel like you have nobody fighting for you.

Saggese: Most of what people have seen on TV is that "Law & Order" formula, where there is a crime, then there is an investigation, then a suspect is sent to trial and it's all shown from the prosecution's point of view. Maybe this will inspire people to be a little more pro-defendant, pro-freedom, pro-Sixth Amendment.

DO YOU FEEL THE SHOW IS A WINNER?

Cristalli: Yes, absolutely. It's true-to-life. It's about Las Vegas and about interesting cases we see here. It's got great writing and acting. People who have been involved in the project have loved it.

Saggese: I think we've got good karma. I found out the other day that the set we're using is the old "Seinfeld" set (laughs). There's actually a plaque there, commemorating the show. So we've got a lot of history on our side.

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at twitter.com/JohnnyKats.

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