Butter and Toast
by ETHAN PETERSON
creators Paul Attanasio & Phil McGraw
There is a great tradition in the performing arts of gaining or losing muscle for a particular role. De Niro, Clooney and Russell Crowe all put on about fifty pounds to look like a boxer and two CIA agents. What the point was of Phil McGraw finding a handsome actor (Michael Weatherly) to play him and then making him like a slovenly mess wearing those glasses and oversized sweaters, I’ll never know. On Bull, Weatherly looks like he showed up at a Halloween Party dressed as Jonah Hill.
In 1990, McGraw was deep in thought about how he could use his PhD in psychology from the University of North Texas to accomplish his major life goal: making a shit ton of money. Bull is based on those heady years when he started CSI, a jury consulting company. Few of the techniques employed by Dr. Joseph Bull could feasibly have been utilized in 1990, since Dr. Bull’s staff includes a hacker (daughter of the show’s executive producer Paul Attanasio), a stylist hired away from Vogue, and an ex-police officer.
The hacker in question is named Cable McCrory, which should be indicative of the level of realism we are approaching in this depiction of Phil McGraw’s life. Paul Attanasio is most famous for making a lot of money by torpedoing the show House into the ground. I’m genuinely sorry if you liked this show, but it was utter garbage completely carried by Hugh Laurie mugging in every scene and half the plots were identical. Also, it was misogynistic and gross, elements that would probably be a lot more faithful to Phil McGraw’s real life in Texas than this Bull.
There are a few things you should know about Dr. Joseph Bull. During every episode of Bull, someone emphasizes how much pain he carries around with him, like his pathway to this questionably moral profession/manipulation of the integrity of the justice system was straight from an orphanage in the Sudan. I’m unclear on what pain Phil McGraw carries with him, the troubled childhood that caused him to ambush Britney Spears in a hospital room and hold a press conference and regularly humiliate people on television.
Most of focus in Bull concerns the good doctor’s relationship with teenagers. Phil McGraw has always related best to children as subjects, since they are unlikely to question him. Many have never been bullied before, or in so splendid a fashion, and they are a lot more open to his particular brand of babble. McGraw gave up the practice of psychology long ago, if he ever was interested in it at all. He was always more concerned with the application of his training to the field of self-help, which is not only more lucrative, it is filled with charlatans even worse than McGraw himself.
None of this is what makes Bull so wretched. CBS seems to be using the same soft filter on all its dramas, giving the shows a generic, polished look that instead of obscuring the fact they are all shot on similar-looking sets, emphasizes the generic backgrounds and costumes. It is not necessary to have a big budget to make your show appear like it is actually taking place in a locale. I have no clue where Bull occurs: whenever they show local media coverage, an anchor shouts, “The city is captivated tonight by a major trial!” So I guess Bull lives in the city.
Even though Dr. Bull is consistently disrespectful to his clients in order to establish dominance, he abhors anyone else’s lack of common decency. It is as if by being a villain he is the only one fully qualified to identify fellow shitheads. It genuinely seems to make him feel better than other people have less integrity than he does; it may be the only thing he can truly subsist on besides butter and toast.
The genius question that Bull asks potential jurors, the one that gives him a personality baseline for his privacy violations into their lives is this: Where do you get a cold? The intimation is that Dr. Bull himself cannot answer this question, or that he never bothers to get one unless it is professionally helpful for him to be a bit under the weather. Dressed in terrible sweaters and wearing glasses that clearly do not fit his face at all, Bull seems incredibly uncomfortable in his own skin.
Ethan Peterson is the senior contributor to This Recording.