Grieving Americans Find
No Solace in The Practice
by Paul Bergman
The Practice, the series about the trials and tribulations
of a small Boston law firm, premiered for the 2001-2002 television
season on September 23, 2001 in a "special" two-hour
episode. In The Candidate, Bobby Donnell, Ellenor Frutt
and the rest of Donnell's law firm represented a popular Massachusetts
state senator charged with murdering his wife's lover.
After receiving conflicting
advice from the members of the firm, the senator went on television
and admitted to killing the man, but claimed that he was not
guilty of any crime because he thought that he was protecting
his wife's life. He had come home with his daughter from the
movies and heard strange noises coming from the bedroom. Thinking
that his wife was being attacked, he quickly got his gun and
ran into the bedroom to find a strange man on top of her. He
shot and killed the man, only to learn soon after that he had
caught his wife and her lover "in flagrante delicto."
If believed by the jury, the senator's story would constitute
the defense of "imperfect self-defense," because he
mistakenly but reasonably believed that he killed to protect
his wife's life.
This season debut episode aired less than two weeks after suicide
terrorists said to be Muslim extremists hijacked four airplanes
on September 11, 2001, and crashed them the World Trade Center
in New York and the Pentagon in Washington D.C. About 6000 people
died, the economy fell apart and Americans were shocked and paralyzed
at the enormity of the crimes. Americans were looking for hope
and inspiration, but it was hard to find in the news in the days
following September 11, 2001.
In the pre-television days
of World War II, movies offered solace and bolstered spirits
by offering positive images of America that would make audiences
feel proud and believe that what their children and friends were
dying for was noble and just. Some of the most important images
were of the American legal system. The Talk of the Town
(1942), starring Cary Grant, Ronald Colman and Jean Arthur, is
a prime example. Colman is Michael Lightcap, a law professor
who awaits his confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court by renting
a cabin and writing a legal treatise. Lightcap's unexpected co-tenants
are the cabin's owner Nora Shelley (Arthur) and Leopold Dilg
(Grant), a prison escapee who was wrongly convicted of arson
and murder. Dilg's whereabouts are eventually discovered and
he is brought to court. The courthouse is stormed by an angry
mob intent on hanging Dilg. Just in time, Lightcap rushes into
court with the actual murderer and fires a gun to stop the mob
in its tracks.
Lightcap sends the mob home
with a stirring speech proclaiming the value and sanctity of
the American legal system. He tells them that the law is what
makes them free people in a free country, and that the rest of
the world is crying out for that law. He scolds the townspeople
for sullying a courtroom with weaponry (apparently forgetting
for the moment the gun that he fired to get their attention).
People must live by the law's precepts every day, and fight and
die to preserve it for future generations.
Any Americans looking to the
premiere episode of The Practice for similar inspiration
about the legal system would have been sadly disappointed. Both
the prosecutors and the defense attorneys spend much of their
time hurling accusations of impropriety at each other and trying
to influence the jury pool by making statements to the media.
Ellenor Frutt, the senator's old friend and lawyer, improperly
advises him to take a shower to wash off any blood splatters
before calling the police to report the shooting. Even children
have no scruples about committing perjury, as the senator's teenage
daughter takes the stand to testify to the made-up story she
planned with her parents, only to tell an even more outlandish
According to this episode of
The Practice, nobody is interested in the truth and the
legal system is incapable of producing it. The judge, thinking
that justice has been done, is satisfied when the senator pleads
guilty to a lesser offense in exchange for a reduced sentence.
However, the episode ends with a third version of "what
really happened," one known only to Ellenor and the family.
The legal system that Michael
Lightcap so proudly held up to audiences in 1942 now is portrayed
as just another manipulable cog in the market economy. I doubt
that anybody in the airplanes, the World Trade Center or the
Pentagon would have been willing to die for it on September 11.
Posted October 17, 2001