It's the Writing Stupid
The dramatic potential of a
trial is obvious. The two sides do battle. Examination and cross-examination,
objections and motions and final argument give plenty of opportunities
for direct person-on-person conflict. That there are so many
trial-based lawyer shows may not only be because Americans are
fascinated by the legal system but also because getting drama
out of a court trial is so darned easy.
The creators of First Monday
deserve credit for attempting something arguably more difficult.
The Supreme Court is, of course, the site of momentous legal
decisions which have an impact on us all. The results are dramatic,
but the procedure often is not.
In an appellate court, there
are no witnesses breaking down on the stand. The parties may
not even attend the appellate arguments. Written briefs make
up the bulk of the legal presentations. Oral arguments are conducted
seriatim, one lawyer after another. There are no objections,
lawyers do not interrupt each other. Even with questions from
the bench, it's fair to say that the dramatic tools inherent
in the appellate setting are more limited than those in portrayals
The challenge, then, is to
make not only the cases but the appellate process dramatic in
a way that will hold the interest of a mass television audience.
First Monday starts with an evenly balanced court. Four liberal
and four conservatives (including the Chief Justice, Thomas Brankin,
played by James Garner) are battling for the judicial soul of
new Justice Joseph Novelli (Joe Mantegna). Added conflict comes
from the battles between Novelli's three clerks, one of whom
is conservative generally in conflict with the other two, a liberal
and a moderate. Flashbacks to the cases get us out of the Supreme
Court and we are treated to the Justice and others watching "point/counterpoint"
type news shows with cameo appearances by real life issue celebs
such as Jerry Falwell and lawyer Gloria Allred.
Actually, these tools are good
ones and give promise that the show could be entertaining, exciting
and (oh no) educational too. Several of the cast members are
long-time favorites capable of turning in excellent performances.
So why were the first two shows so painful to watch? Why did
I find myself wincing? Why have the reviews, both in the professional
press and within the ranks of PJ reviews, been less than enthusiastic?
It's the writing, stupid. So far, it hasn't been very good.
It's possible to handle difficult
legal and political issues well and still make dramatic television.
The West Wing does it week after week. The show has become
expert in finding ways to explain complex and difficult issues
quickly but with depth, adroitly blending humor and drama while
developing rich characters.
So far, First Monday
hasn't found its way. The dialogue sounds stagy and cliched and
the characters are cartoonish caricatures of their political
labels. For some reason, the clerks seem to be playing their
parts young-almost like the high school students on Boston Public
rather than young lawyers in career-making positions.
I'm always leery about criticizing
popular television for taking liberties with the details of law
and legal practice. The goal isn't to create a documentary but
entertainment television. But an error in the first show bothered
me because it seemed unnecessary and because it suggested a failure
of the writer's imagination.
In a truly horrendous moment,
a Justice directs a question not to the lawyer but to the party,
a pre-op transgendered asylum seeker-and then proceeds to ridicule
the poor sod. Hearing the confusion of the client wasn't a bad
dramatic idea, but couldn't the writer have found a better way
to do it than the gross misrepresentation of appellate court
procedure for no better reason than to show us that the Justice
is a jerk.
It's too soon to write off
First Monday. The show may feel that it must establish
the broad outlines of character and setting before showing us
nuance and depth. But the public won't wait long. The writing
must improve or the epitaph of First Monday will not be
that the show is bad law, but that it is not very good television.
Posted January 22, 2002