Picturing Justice, the On-Line Journal of Law and Popular Culture

Michael Asimow


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David Papke
John Denvir

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Boston Legal
Law and Order: Trial By Jury




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.

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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.

Personally, 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 news programs
  • 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 long ago.

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 but sophisticated.
  • 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 room, unofficially."
  • 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 annoying.

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 job.

Posted April 4, 2005

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