May 25, 2007

Are real-life lawyers starting to think they can act like those lawyers on TV?

Yesterday we were talking about that lawyer who told a judge she was "a few French Fries short of a Happy Meal." Beldar wonders if television has warped their minds. Beldar says he's been a big fan of the lawyer show "for a long, long time, all the way back to Perry Mason days," but you've got to realize these shows are fiction and that they've got to concoct endless dramatic spectacles. How incompetent to lose your bearings and think that because these TV lawyers mouth off to the judge and suffer no serious sanctions that you can too!

Me, I don't watch the TV lawyer shows. I didn't watch "Perry Mason" back in the 60s, and aside from a couple of episodes of "L.A. Law" -- enough to see I didn't like it -- haven't watched any in the last 30 years. I accept that the shows exaggerate and overdramatize to entertain people, but it just doesn't work on me.

But there was once a TV show about lawyers that I loved: "The Defenders."
The series concerned the cases of a father-and-son team of defense attorneys, Lawrence Preston (E.G. Marshall), the sharp veteran litigator, and his green and idealistic son Kenneth (Robert Reed)....

As Rose pointed out a 1964 article, "the law is the subject of our programs: not crime, not mystery, not the courtroom for its own sake. We were never interested in producing a 'who-done-it' which simply happened to be resolved each week in a flashy courtroom battle of wits." Rose undoubtedly had in mind CBS's other celebrated defense attorney Perry Mason (1957-66) when he wrote these words. Although both were nominally "courtroom dramas" or "lawyer shows," Perry Mason was first and foremost a classical detective story whose climax played out in the courtroom, while The Defenders focused on the machinery of the law, the vagaries of the legal process, and system's capacity for justice. Although the Prestons took on their share of murder cases, their aim in such instances was to mount a sound defense or plead for mercy, not unmask the real killer on the witness stand.

Certainly The Defenders exploited the inherent drama of the courtroom, but it did so by mining the complexity of the law, its moral and ethical implications, and its human dimensions. Rose and his writers found much compelling drama in probing the psychology of juries, the motives of clients, the biases of opposing counsel, the flaws of the system itself, and the fallibility of their own lawyer-heroes. The series frequently took a topical perspective on the American justice system, honing in on timely or controversial legal questions: capital punishment, "no-knock" search laws, custody rights of adoptive parents, the insanity defense, the "poisoned fruit doctrine" (admissibility of illegally obtained evidence), as well as immigration quotas and Cold War visa restrictions. The Defenders avoided simple stances on such cases, instead illuminating ambiguities and opposing perspectives, and stressing the uncertain and fleeting nature of justice before the law.
Can we get a show like that now?

16 comments:

Donald Douglas said...

C'mon, you've never -- not even once -- watched "Law and Order?" It's my favorite show. It's a much better show than the old "L.A. Law," if they're comparable. "Boston Legal" is more like "L.A. Law" was, more in the comedy-legal genre, one might say. But "Law and Order" seems so authentic. By the way, in case you haven't seen anything about it, Sam Waterston's character, executive ADA Jack McCoy is going to take over the elected N.Y. District Attorney spot, when Fred Thompson leaves the show to run for the GOP nomination (NBC's trying to save money, and moved "Law and Order" to the thankless Friday, 10:00pm time slot awhile back, like that would help the ratings, duh!). I love Waterston, though I really miss Jerry Orbach (rest his soul), whose Lennie Briscoe was the perfect, wisecracking detective. What say you?

Burkean Reflections

Simon said...

I have a weakness for Boston Legal, even though the James Spader character took a totally gratuitous swipe at Justice Scalia a few seasons back. It's kind of eccentric, but it's fun.

You could certainly get a show today that "took a topical perspective on the American justice system, honing in on timely or controversial legal questions," but there the similarity would end - it would precisely adopt "simple stances on such cases," and far from "illuminating ambiguities and opposing perspectives, and stressing the uncertain and fleeting nature of justice before the law," it would pitch very clearly down one side. Just as The West Wing descended in its final season and a half into basically a liberal wet dream, so too would a show created today with the aspirations of "The Defenders."

Simon said...

Re L&O, I think that's quite a clever approach, because then you're not tied to the courtroom with an hour of air time to fill - they can play with the balance a little. I watch occaisionally (usually only if I remember).

Rick Lee said...

Boston Legal is a continuation of Aly McBeal... same writer... same sort of cartoonish plots and courtroom scenes. I really liked it at first, but after they had two shows in a row where lawyers showed up in court wearing silly costumes, I gave up on it. I watch Law & Order too much. I watch it in re-runs (variations... SVU, etc) sometimes twice a day if nothing else is on. While I'm certain it's over-dramatized, they certainly do cover some interesting legal issues. In one show this past year SVU had a case that was so ambiguous that even at the end of the show, the viewer was left wondering if the rape really did occur.

Ann Althouse said...

Donald: I'm not lying. I've felt that I should check it out, but I'm just not interested.

Simon: "even though the James Spader character took a totally gratuitous swipe at Justice Scalia"

LOL.

Christy said...

I'm all for any show that makes me howl with laughter, as "Boston Legal" does on a regular basis. But talk about disrespect for Judges....

rightwingprof said...

You didn't watch Judd for the Defense?

Blink! Blink!

Donald Douglas said...

Well, "Law and Order" has been on for 17 years, so you must be REALLY not be interested. I understand of course, but I do think you'd enjoy the show. Relatedly, producer Dick Wolf is trying to keep the show on the air long enough to break the record for longest running drama series -- the record belongs to "Gunsmoke" -- which ran for 20 seasons -- and surprisingly I actually watched some episodes of that show when I was a kid. (I never did see the "The Defenders," but I like your description of it.)

Now, Rick, technically, "Boston Legal" is a continuation of "The Practice," though I defer on the same writers, perhaps producers, etc. I like James Spader immensely (without whom the show might not survive, excepting William Shatner). "The Practice" perhaps fits some of Ann's description of "The Defenders." Again, I didn't see the earlier series, but perhaps some of the better episodes of "The Practice" "exploited the inherent drama of the courtroom, but it did so by mining the complexity of the law, its moral and ethical implications, and its human dimensions." On that note, one of "The Practice" episodes, probably from the second season, if I recall, had an anti-death penalty theme that was so compelling that it almost made me switch my position on capital punishment. The murder defendant, a poor African-American, convicted at trial, was sentenced to death, and the show was all about attempting an unsuccesful 11th-hour appeal to stay the execution. The "last meal" scene was a tearjerker: The defendant, who asked for steak and lobster, had to have Michael Badalucco's character (James Berluti), show him how to flip the lobster over to crack it, butter it up, dip it, and what not (looking for Kleenex box here). Now, that was great legal drama!

I agree with Rick on the "Law and Order" fix. The show used to be syndicated on A&E, then TNT took it over and really ran with the ball. Most of the other spinoffs are on some of the other networks as well, like USA Network. One can almost always turn on the tube to catch one of the shows from the franchise.

In closing, Ann, perhaps check it out! Are Friday nights your busiest nights for blogging, or perhaps a night on the town? If not, adjust that dial to good ole Sam Waterston.

Have a great day!

Burkean Reflections

DBrooks17 said...

Ann--I remember "The Defender" fondly. It was a great show. Did you ever see the movie "The Law" with Judd Hirsch as a public defendant? That's another law-oriented production that I thought was really good--although a little sensationalized.

MrBuddwing said...

If I were to recommend an episode of "Law & Order" to someone who's never seen it before and was curious as to what all the fuss was about, I would suggest one of the following: "Indifference" (obviously inspired by the Lisa Steinberg case); "Severance" (the CBS murders); "Heaven" (the Happy Land Fire of 1990).

I would also suggest "Consultation" (about Nigerian drug swallowers - wonderfully and convincingly complicated), "His Hour Upon the Stage" (a dead man in a soaking-wet tuxedo turns up in a garbage dumpster) and "The Pursuit of Happiness" (the first L&O I saw, about Russian mail order brides).

Notably, all of the above episodes feature Michael Moriarty as executive ADA Ben Stone. Among the later episodes with Sam Waterston as ADA Jack McCoy, I'd highly recommend, from the layman talking to the law professor angle, "Purple Heart" (a Gulf War vet is found shot to death in his taxi), which contains some terrific-sounding legalese.

It's true that the overall quality of the series has declined over the years; generally speaking, the earlier ones are the best.

George said...

"The Rifleman"

No lawyers, only justice.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_RWtRUuslNw&mode=related&search=

And some moral teachin's.....

Peter Palladas said...

I didn't watch "Perry Mason" back in the 60s...

Sher-ame on you gal!

The real Quiet American - honourable, courteous and deadly.

Got a good portion of my moral code from Erle Stanley Gardner.

PatCA said...

Law and Order used to be about that kind of thing, before they went to "ripped from the headlines." Even the best of writers run out of ideas eventually.

In my experience, TV does affect lawyers. During the OJ trial, lawyers suddenly started requesting sidebars, even when there was no jury present! The judges were perplexed, and annoyed. One lawyer, though, was very happy when he scored his sidebar, because it was the witness he didn't want to hear his argument.

Troy said...

I thought the judge liked it when I yelled passionately "NO! You're out of order!" It seemed perfectly suited to the administrative hearing.

Texas judges were also particularly fond of the COugh-covered "Bullshit" and the good old "Homosaywhat?!?" routine.

Fred said...

What you wrote sounds like something from Boston Legal, I love that show!

I actually stopped watching law shows after the Practice, and a friend urged me to watch Boston Legal because as she said "Its different.. just trust me, watch it you will love it."

I haven't missed a show since, i can't get enough of Spader and the all-star loony cast. :) Its brilliant, give it a shot!

hdhouse said...

woooooo

"Are real-life lawyers starting to think..."

I stopped, stunned, in the middle of the first sentence..unable to continue...gasping for air, eyes out of focus, ...its my heart....think....lawyers.......think.....oh the humanity......