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Michael Asimow


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The message from pop culture is that the cops, police forensic scientists, and prosecutors are noble and fascinating creatures who have all the right answers, while those on the defense side are faintly repugnant toads

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By Michael Asimow

Televised pop culture concentrates on only one side of the criminal justice process. Prosecutors, police, and police forensics rule the roost. Countless TV series glorify those who toil for law enforcement. Defense lawyers have virtually disappeared from the airwaves, except as weasels who get trounced by the prosecutors. The traditional noble defender, running from Perry Mason and The Defenders through Matlock to L. A. Law and The Practice, seems to be on life support. Alan Shore on Boston Legal occasionally attempts a bit of criminal defense, but those cynical and obviously parodied stories do little to enhance the image of the criminal defense bar. The tenacious attorneys on Injustice challenge the past convictions of innocent defendants. But that's about it for the defense side.

What's going on here? What explains this swing of the pendulum in favor of crime-fighting? Are viewers so terrified by crime that they're only interested in police, forensic scientists, and prosecutors? Yet violent crime rates are far below those of ten or twenty years ago. Do most viewers detest criminal defense lawyers? Well, probably so, but they've felt that way for years, so what's changed? Are people terrified that guilty people are getting acquitted? Maybe, but there's been far more recent publicity about innocent people being convicted and later exonerated by DNA testing (a development that Injustice shrewdly capitalizes on). In a time of war, do viewers want to be assured that government knows what it's doing? Yet the President's approval ratings are dismal and people seem to distrust government more than ever. Is it blowback from 9/11? Yet it's hard to see the connection between terrorist atrocities and the normal routine of urban street crime.

Whatever the reason, the message from pop culture is that the cops, police forensic scientists, and prosecutors are noble and fascinating creatures who have all the right answers, while those on the defense side are faintly repugnant toads who, at best, merit protection under the Endangered Species Act. This highly opinionated article focuses on two new prosecutor dramas, Conviction and Close to Home, comparing them to that mainstay of police/prosecutor sanctification, Law & Order.

In Conviction, Dick Wolf creates a prosecution office as different from Law & Order as it could possibly be. We see an ensemble of impossibly good looking and extremely horny 20- and 30-somethings on a crusade against crime and sleeping alone. Like The Practice and LA Law before it, Conviction is a workplace drama in which the personal lives of the characters center on their place of employment. Clearly, Wolf was stung by the sudden death of his previous series Law & Order: Trial by Jury (which I, for one, thought was excellent) as well as by a ratings decline in the flagship Law & Order. Conviction attacks the prized 18-49 demographic with gusto. Of course, it also helped in selling the series that the new show was able to use the costly sets built for Law & Order: Trial by Jury.

Every episode of Law & Order, you'll recall, has an identical structure. Each concerns only a single case. In the first half hour, typical New Yorkers stumble on a dead body. Inspired police investigation turns up the real killer. In the second half, prosecutor Jack McCoy and his female associate convict them. The cops and prosecutors have no life outside the office and do little socializing even there (there are the occasional brief congratulatory bar scenes at the end of the episode where McCoy gets to make an ironic point about the proceedings). With rare exceptions, nothing is said about the characters' personal lives (at the most, we get a tantalizingly brief glimpse of their problems with family or alcoholism). It's all work. Turnover in the cast makes little difference to the show's appeal because it's all about the stories, not the actors.

I'm a fan of Law & Order. The stories are well written, often very thought-provoking, sophisticated, and complex. A recent show, for example, raised issues of great importance about the use of private security contractors in fighting the Iraq war and the lack of any system for holding private contractors accountable. That episode featured a lefty defense lawyer, Danielle Melnick, who has appeared repeatedly on Law & Order and clashed entertainingly with McCoy, but who seems to care more about the cause than her client. The writers are lawyers themselves and they strive to achieve legal accuracy.

To me, the phenomenal commercial success of Law & Order is baffling: there's no sex or violence and the show never dumbs itself down or underestimates the viewers' intelligence. If you doze off or get up to answer the phone or go to the bathroom, you're going to lose the thread of the story. As a result, Law & Order seems to flout every conventional rule for success in the world of mass media, yet old episodes play every day on cable while new episodes continue to appear on NBC. Although I can't account for its success, I appreciate the high quality of the show and I watch it religiously.

Close to Home is more like the Law & Order narrative model than that used in Conviction. The show is set in Indianapolis, a big city with plenty of crime but lacking the grit and glamour of Manhattan or L. A. It focuses on a single dedicated prosecutor, the highly attractive Annabeth Chase and her supervisor, a black woman named Maureen Scofield. Like Law & Order, each episode of Close to Home concerns only a single case (often involving some form of domestic violence), so the story can be developed in some depth and there are interesting plot twists. Unlike the celibates on Law & Order, however, Chase has a personal life. She's married, has a baby, and is just returning from maternity leave. She also has a very supportive husband who is a full child-care partner and is happy to step in to help when Chase has to rush to the office in the middle of the night or on weekends.

A recent story involved an interesting Miranda issue in which the suspect never quite told the detective interrogating him that he wanted a lawyer but kept asking whether he needed one. It also involved a canny defense lawyer who successfully bluffs the prosecutors into accepting a plea bargain in a winnable case. I like Close to Home, but it's nowhere near as well written as Law & Order. My sense is that the scenes involving Chase's struggle to balance home and work are thin and artificial, grafted onto the legal story just to show that she's a human being and, perhaps, to appeal to a female young-working-mother demographic.

Which brings us to Conviction. Here each episode presents three to five cases, intercutting between them throughout the hourly show along with personal tidbits about the lawyers. The multi-story format has some advantages and a big disadvantage. The major advantage is that it allows most members of the ensemble to play important roles in each episode. Another advantage is that the format represents the reality of a prosecutor's office: everybody is rushing around trying to cover the caseload. New cases pour in, the pace is frantic, and mistakes get made. Lawyers have to spend precious time trying to get witnesses to appear at trial and not chicken out on the testimony they promised to give. (Jessica Rossi gives a prostitute $50 for a heroin fix in order to get her to court to testify against a rapist). Cases fizzle out because witnesses are found to have lied to the police. Most of the others get plea bargained. Only a few make it to trial. This approach gives a genuine sense of the way an urban prosecutor's office functions. The Law & Order and Close To Home model of devoting all of the office's resources to a single high profile case is a stylized way of telling a story in depth, but it's not realistic.

The disadvantage of the multi-story format, however, is that none of the stories on Conviction are well developed, because there just isn't time for it. You'll forget them by the next morning. So if you're looking for sophisticated and challenging legal and ethical stories (and I am), Conviction will probably be rather disappointing, the cultural equivalent of fast food.

But the show has some strong points. I liked the emphasis in several stories on rookie Nick Potter, who has just arrived at the office from a Wall St. firm because he wants to try cases (young people in big firms never try cases or even meet with clients and even senior litigation partners almost never get to trial). Yet Nick doesn't have a clue what he's supposed to be doing and is the subject of good natured hazing by his colleagues. Nick also finds himself in a dilemma when he witnesses police brutality while on a ride-along with the cops. In the subsequent Internal Affairs investigation, he must decide whether to tell the whole truth (and get the cops fired) or pull his punches (so he can continue working with them for the rest of his career).

Christina Finn is terrified when she tries her first case, especially when the judge makes and then sustains objections to her leading questions. (She's also cruelly hazed by the judge for leaving the evidence-cocaine-on her desk during the lunch break). Busy prosecutorial offices always have rookies who must be trained and brought along slowly and acculturated into the office's institutional life. And when a prosecutor with an organized crime case is gunned down in the pilot episode (his dinner location perhaps disclosed by Nick's incautious comment), I thought that made for effective drama about the physical dangers of a prosecutor's life.

Also I don't mind experiencing the personal lives of the characters when it illuminates their work experience. Brian Peluso (who probably gets more face-time than any other member of the ensemble) is a compulsive gambler who owes money to his bookie. This entangles him in a serious conflict of interest when his bookie pressures him to get Christina to go easy on a gun case involving the bookie's relative. If I'm to invite these characters into my living room for the long haul, I'd like to get to know them as people. Thus I always enjoyed the mixture of gritty criminal defense and unhappy personal lives on The Practice, especially the way the writers managed so often to link the two.

Another thing I liked about the four Conviction episodes I've seen is that the bureau chief, Alexandra Cabot, is politically ambitious and imposes hard-line policies on the office in order to project an image of being tough-on-crime. Serious juvenile criminals must be prosecuted as adults. No pleading down drug cases or gun crimes. The results of such policies can be very harsh. An apparently intelligent and reasonably decent 14-year old boy kills his bullying big brother with a baseball bat. Office policy prevents the prosecutors from treating this tragic case as a juvenile matter. The kid must be tried as an adult. The prosecutors offer manslaughter and 8 years, but the kid's father (having lost one son and threatened now by losing another) won't let him accept the deal, assuring him that he'll surely be acquitted of second degree murder. The predictably tragic result ensues. But the office's policy of insisting on prosecuting children who commit violent crimes as adults is even more at fault for this unjust result than the overbearing father. In this era of excessive criminal penalties (such as three-strike laws and mandatory minimum sentences for minor drug offenses) and ever-increasing prison populations, I appreciate the show's effort to critique excessively harsh prosecution and punishment policies.

And now for a few words on the subject of sex. I personally like emphasis on the sexuality of the characters in film or television drama when it is set within an interesting and developing personal relationship and is well integrated into the story. Take, for example, Six Feet Under. That great show bristled with interesting sexual relationships: Nate and Brenda. David and Keith. Ruth and George. Claire and Billy. Federico and Vanessa. And many more. But on Six Feet Under the sex was always part of a much bigger personal story. I don't mind graphic language (indeed, I like it when characters on HBO say fuck and shit, as real people do all the time). I don't object to the occasional sight of normally concealed body parts or seeing simulated intercourse when the sex involves relationships between characters I've come to empathize with.

However, the sex in Conviction is different, somehow, and I've struggled to understand my reaction to it. In Conviction, we see all of the prosecutors on a roll-in the hay. Fundamentally, the show is a workplace drama about a bunch of good-looking single people trying to get laid. Several succeed in each episode, particularly Brian and Jessica. Christina isn't very good at it and discovers potential partners are happily married or prefer women with bigger boobs.

In this show, casual sex is used to titillate viewers and appeal to the 18-49 demographic, but it has little to do with the legal stories in the DA's office. Wolf is obviously trying to capture a soap opera or Desperate Housewives sensibility. As a definite non-member of the 18-49 demographic, I find the sexual banter and bedroom scenes in Conviction boring and irrelevant. Not shocking (especially not in the laundered form permitted on network TV), just tedious. I'm interested in an intriguing legal story, and the sex just gets in the way. But then that's my taste, not yours. Probably I'm just too last century.

I can sympathize with Dick Wolf's pursuit of the younger demographic and his attempt to maintain his brand, but for provocative stories about law, lawyers and ethics from a prosecutor's point of view, I'd stick with Law & Order with a fallback to Close to Home. Leave the sex to the soap operas. Meanwhile, how about bringing back to the small screen some dedicated criminal defense lawyers like those lovable bottom feeders on The Practice?

Posted April 5, 2006

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