TV

Dr. Phil McGraw’s courtroom experiences inspire ‘Bull’

Dr. Jason Bull (Michael Weatherly), second from left, and his assistants sit in on a trial in an episode of the new CBS series Bull.
Dr. Jason Bull (Michael Weatherly), second from left, and his assistants sit in on a trial in an episode of the new CBS series Bull. CBS

If you know Dr. Phil McGraw only as a daytime TV personality, you don’t know Bull.

In the decade before the 2002 debut of the popular Dr. Phil show, the University of North Texas alum specialized in a very different field. As the co-founder of Courtroom Sciences Inc., he would consult with trial lawyers, assisting them with jury selection, witness prep, mock trials and litigation strategy.

This chapter in McGraw’s life serves as the inspiration for Bull, a fun and fast-paced series that premieres at 8 p.m. Tuesday on CBS.

The jury is still out regarding the fates of most new fall shows. But thanks to its charismatic leading man (Michael Weatherly as Dr. Jason Bull), its cushy time slot (between NCIS and NCIS: New Orleans) and its fresh spin on the too familiar TV lawyer genre, Bull is the closest thing there is this year to a sure-fire Nielsen ratings hit.

McGraw — an executive producer alongside Mark Goffman (White Collar, Sleepy Hollow and Limitless) and Paul Attanasio (House and Homicide) — is ecstatic about the new show.

As we’ve gotten deeper into it, exploring more and more of the trial sciences, I think the show has really gotten its legs.

Dr. Phil McGraw

“We’ve just started shooting our sixth episode,” he said last week. “As we’ve gotten deeper into it, exploring more and more of the trial sciences, I think the show has really gotten its legs.

“I’ve got to say, I’m really liking these episodes.”

If Perry Mason and Ben Matlock were still practicing TV law in the year 2016, they’d turn to Dr. Jason Bull and his high-tech Trial Analysis Corp. team for help. Bull’s insights into human psychology, combined with research from his colleagues, allow him to shape the narrative of any trial.

“What’s been exciting about this show,” Goffman says, “is to get to take a look at the legal system and this application of psychology, really studying human behavior and what motivates people. It’s peeling the veil back and saying, ‘It’s not just facts that move a case; it’s the human dynamic.’

“What a revelation this idea of trial science is, a field that Dr. Phil pioneered with cases from the airline industry to Oprah [when cattle ranchers sued Oprah Winfrey after an episode exposed controversial practices in the beef industry] to indigents who would never have gotten a fair trial if not for him.”

McGraw says the magic onscreen begins with Weatherly. Fresh off a 13-year run as viewer favorite Tony DiNozzo on NCIS, the actor has proved to be an inspired casting choice.

“I’ve always found that people are either psychologically minded or they’re not,” McGraw says. “They either get the hydraulics of human behavior and emotion or they don’t. He so got it so quickly and right away started layering and texturing this character and everything involved in it.”

Bull’s support team includes a neurolinguistics expert from the Department of Homeland Security (played by Geneva Carr), a former NYPD detective who serves as lead investigator (Jaime Lee Kirchner), a gifted computer hacker (Annabelle Attanasio) and a veteran lawyer who plays the defense attorney in mock trials (Freddy Rodriguez).

Put all of these ingredients together and the result is a show that turns the conventions of the genre upside-down, the same way that CSI: Crime Scene Investigation made everyone look at crime procedurals in a new way. Perhaps fittingly, Courtroom Sciences Inc. is widely known simply as CSI.

McGraw ended his ties to CSI, which he started with Gary Dobbs in 1989, when he made the move to daytime television in 2002. He concedes that the company wasn’t the first to offer legal advice.

“There have always been briefcase consultants,” he says. “But our approach was to go in guts, feathers and all.”

They created an elaborate trial center in Las Colinas and hired experts in a variety of legal and scientific disciplines. They built working replicas of federal and state courtrooms for mock trials. They observed mirror juries in deliberation via close-circuit TV to better predict what real jurors would decide.

“What made us different,” McGraw says, “is that we chose to do it in a really big way.”

It was Jay McGraw, Phil’s son and also an executive producer, who pushed for a TV series.

“Jay grew up around the business and was around a lot of our high-profile cases,“ Dr. Phil says. “He came to me and said, ‘Dad, we need to do a TV show about this. You underestimate how interesting it all is. But I’m telling you, it’s absolutely fascinating and it’s unlike anything on television.’

“Eventually, he talked me into it. That’s where this all started.”

McGraw is quick to point out, however, that Bull is a work of fiction.

“This is not autobiographical or biographical,” he says. “It’s just ‘inspired by.’ 

Weatherly wasn’t looking to jump into a new series immediately after leaving NCIS last season. He and his wife had made plans to take a break and kick back for a while. Then someone showed him a script.

The actor is only partly joking when he says, “When they asked, ‘Have you read Bull?’ to which I said, ‘I don’t drink Red Bull.’ They said, ‘No, it’s not the energy drink. It’s a TV show.’ I kind of was like, ‘Aw, I’m really tired. I don’t know if I’m interested.’ 

But once Weatherly read the script, he found that the character and the premise were too good to resist. The plans that he and his wife had made would have to change.

“But sometimes a change is as good as a rest,” he says. “That’s what this has been for me.”

McGraw adds that there’s one other reason that the handsome actor is so ideally suited for the part.

“Obviously,” McGraw jokes, “we’re kind of twins as far as looks are concerned.”

To that comment, we’ll throw one of Dr. Phil’s catchphrases back in his face: “Get real!”

Bull

  • 8 p.m. Tuesday
  • KTVT/Channel 11
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