They say you can't go home again — but apparently you can go back to the Home Box Office. On Wednesday, premium channel HBO ordered a pilot of a new series called Criminal Justice, which will star James Gandolfini in his first TV series since The Sopranos went off the air in 2007. Both HBO and Gandolfini benefited from their Sopranos collaboration, which earned unanimous critical acclaim, a fiercely loyal viewership, and more Emmys than you could shake a cannoli at. But Criminal Justice, based on a hit 2008 BBC series of the same name, sees Gandolfini on the other side of the criminal justice system as a lawyer defending a young man who wakes up next to a corpse after a night of heavy drinking. Will the second collaboration between HBO and Gandolfini be the premium channel's next big thing?
The role is tailor-made for Gandolfini: Ever since The Sopranos went off the air, HBO "has been looking to find a new series vehicle" for Gandolfini, says Nellie Andreeva at Deadline. Though the actor has considered several other projects, including a dramedy set in Antarctica called Big Dead Place and a remake of a French-Canadian series called Taxi-22, this is the first Gandolfini project to make it into production. And if the new HBO series is a success, Gandolfini is committed to a starring role on Criminal Justice for the long haul; even if the series wraps up its case at the end of the season as its BBC counterpart did, Gandolfini's character will carry over into future seasons.
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But audiences might not respond to a Gandolfini series that isn't The Sopranos: Audiences are "always looking for a reason to reject an actor's efforts to explore the new," says Michael Arbeiter at Hollywood.com. The numerous failed projects from alumni of shows like Seinfeld and Friends teaches an important lesson about TV audiences: "If we're tuning into the same place to watch the same people, we want to see the same thing." Sopranos-loving viewers who tune in to Criminal Justice may conclude that Gandolfini's lawyer isn't similar enough to his iconic turn as Tony Soprano to give the show a chance.
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And Criminal Justice is a step in the wrong direction for HBO: Criminal Justice's premise and cast are both solid, and casting Gandolfini as a jailhouse lawyer is "a solid break from his criminal past," says Andy Greenwald at Grantland. But casting a former network star in a crime drama is playing it pretty safe — and "the closest HBO has come to great in recent years has been when its programmers have gone off the reservation and pursued projects with people not already embedded in their Rolodexes." HBO should be looking for the next Girls or Game of Thrones if it wants to recapture the "creative vision that made the network the number one game in town a decade ago."
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