A TALE OF TWO SERIES-BOSTON
LEGAL AND LAW & ORDER: TRIAL BY JURY
By Michael Asimow
It's not quite the best of
times or the worst of times for fans of courtroom drama on TV.
Of the two new lawyer series this season, Boston Legal
and Law & Order: Trial by Jury, one's pretty bad but
one's pretty good.
I dislike Boston Legal. After watching the initial episode
last fall, I didn't see another until our intrepid chief webitor
John Denvir asked me to
take another look. So I watched four episodes but I don't plan
to see any more. Now, I really respect series creator and writer
David E. Kelley. I almost always enjoyed The Practice
which morphed into Boston Legal. In addition, there are
some really skilled actors working on this show. Finally, my
esteemed brother in the law and film movement David
Papke thinks the show is a brilliant satire. For these reasons,
I want to give Boston Legal the benefit of the doubt.
And there are some good things
about Boston Legal. First, each of the four recent episodes
involved two legal cases handled by the law firm and most of
them were pretty interesting. For example, the lawyers confronted
- the substantive due process
aspects of a small town's decision to ban the sale of red meat
- the First Amendment implications
of a high school's decision to block Fox News but not any other
- the personal autonomy aspects
of a dying lawyer's demand to freeze himself so he could be thawed
out in a hundred years and resume his legal career.
- the guidelines for police
conduct when the cops are desperately trying to find a kidnapped
child (is torture permissible in such circumstances?)
- a Texas death penalty case
where the condemned wanted to die and the Texas Court of Criminal
Appeals just couldn't care less.
These interesting and meaty
legal issues distinguish Boston Legal from Kelley's previous
show, Ally McBeal. On Ally, the legal issues presented
were silly and just an excuse for keeping the lawyers busy doing
something while they worked out their romantic problems. Even
better, we see the lawyers on both sides of the Boston Legal
cases making solid legal arguments before judges and juries who
take them seriously.
So what's not to like? Well,
two things. First, I can't stand the characters. They really
grate on me. I think a successful television series must feature
at least some human beings that the audience finds empathetic.
On The Practice we cared about the characters in the law
firm, particularly Eugene Young, Elinor Frutt, James Berluti,
and Rebecca Washington. (I wasn't a fan of Bobby Donnell however)
We liked them as human beings and we liked the way they represented
their clients and struggled with the business and ethical dilemmas
of making a living as a bottom-feeder law firm. The same was
true of many of the characters on LA Law, which Kelley
produced during its middle years.
You don't get that in Boston
Legal-not at all. Take Alan Shore (played by James Spader).
Shore is arrogant, obnoxious and unpleasant. He mouths off to
everybody including the other lawyers and the judges. I guess
Kelley is trying to write a show with "attitude" or
"edge," and maybe you've got to do that to appeal to
the target demographic, but I don't like it. Maybe it's an attempt
to capture the nasty element in Judge Judy that viewers
seem to enjoy so much. The humor in Shore's character wore off
Even worse is Denny Crane (William
Shatner). This one-joke character takes extreme pride in saying
his own name. That joke was cute when they did it on the last
episodes of The Practice, but why is it still funny after
being repeated over and over again? Crane thinks he's still the
world's greatest trial lawyer, but he seems to be suffering from
some sort of serious mental disintegration, so that the other
lawyers have to constantly shut him up. Like Shore, Crane's obnoxious,
just about all the time. I don't like these characters, I don't
find them funny, and I don't choose to invite them into my family
room any more.
The second thing I dislike
about Boston Legal is the stupid sexual banter that occurs
throughout each episode and often involves Shirley Schmidt (Candace
Bergen), a bottom-line oriented senior partner. Now I realize
that there's lots of sex going on in law firms (since the people
who work there have no time for any life outside the firm), and
sex can be a very funny subject when handled in a sophisticated
manner. But the sexual dialogue in Boston Legal is anything
- Examples of this scintillating
dialogue: Shore, when introduced to a new associate who says
we haven't officially met: "I've peeked at you in the girl's
- After winning a case, Crane
suggests to Schmidt that they celebrate by having sex. Schmidt:
"It's a long time since you've hit my button, I doubt you'd
know where to find it."
- Crane to his alienated son
and adversary: "I love you-it's hard for me to say that
except in foreplay."
- Shore to Schmidt who wants
him to do a closing argument: "If you so enjoy keeping me
in the dark, you really should give me a try...in the dark. Is
that what this is all about-your unconscious desire to bed me?
- Schmidt: "Come again?"
"Crane: I don't like it when you say that, Shirley, it puts
pressure on me."
Well, yuk, yuk. Do you find
this stuff funny or just sophomoric? Perhaps the inane sexual
banter is considered necessary to appeal to the target demographic,
and perhaps it's considered cutting edge writing, but to me it's
Now to Law & Order:
Trial by Jury. This new Dick Wolf spinoff focuses much more
heavily on the criminal trial process (and much less on the police)
than does the original Law & Order. It stars a terrific
actor, Bebe Neuwirth, as the chief prosecutor (Arthur Branch,
the DA on both shows, is played by Fred Dalton Thompson who I
find grievously miscast). These shows involve really interesting
criminal trials and often take us into the jury room before we
learn the outcome. The writing is crisp and accurate and, like
Law & Order, it's all plot-driven, not character-driven.
One show featured an interesting vigilante killing of an accused
child molester, for example. Another involved the trial of a
cop-killer who had taken 41 bullets from the police. Another
involved three young men all involved somehow in a killing and
all trying to make their own deals. There's next to nothing about
the personal lives of the lawyers and that's fine with me. So,
from my point of view, this show is vastly superior to Boston
Legal and really is enjoyable and stimulating to watch.
Yet there's one thing about
Law & Order: Trial by Jury that I don't like: the
scummy way the defense lawyers are portrayed. The show seems
to be about the prosecutors' view of what defense lawyers are
really like. One lawyer puts on knowingly perjured testimony.
Another turns out to have actually driven the getaway car during
the murder and is handling the case (and selling out her client)
just to promote her political career. A third arranges a phony
marriage to improve his client's media image (he promises the
"wife" a good cut of the damages he plans to recover
from the city when he sues it for civil rights violations).
Now the original Law &
Order often features irritating defense lawyers who are always
handing the prosecutors motions to suppress or dismiss or asserting
privilege and otherwise obstructing the course of justice, but
they're just doing their job. On Trial by Jury, it's quite
different: there seems to be a truly malevolent view about the
character of defense lawyers. Dick Wolf knows better than that.
A good TV show shouldn't just feed the public's prejudice against
lawyers who are doing an difficult and unpopular but very necessary
Posted April 4, 2005