There should be a law against TV shows about the law or the legal process. Most of them, anyway.
Maybe the chain will be broken with next season's "L.A. Law" on NBC, a looks-good-on-paper series from "Hill Street Blues" co-creator Steven Bochco. But for now, from 1946's "Public Prosecutor" to Monday night's "You the Jury" on NBC, TV has compiled a 40-year record of mostly legal laughers.
"You the Jury" presented a depiction of a supposed real murder trial and let viewers decide the verdict by calling in during the program. That in itself seemed, well, a bit iffy. How can you decide on a verdict during a program without having seen the entire trial? And if viewers waited until after the program, there wouldn't be time to compile the results.
But-- voila! --there was time, with a man accused of murdering his wife narrowly gaining acquittal from viewers, 50.2% to 49.8%. Maybe real cases should be tried this way--including providing an 800 number to vote for or against capital punishment--thereby unchoking crowded courts and letting the public participate in the legal system.
Meanwhile, the "You the Jury" trial was a 60-yard dash. It allotted exactly half an hour each for the prosecution and the defense, and attorneys for both sides (played by Robert Vaughn and Constance McCashin) were smooth and assured.
Just as in real legal life? Oh, sure.
The best law series ever was "The Defenders," an early 1960s CBS classic starring E. G. Marshall and Robert Reed as the Prestons. They were father-and-son lawyers who not only explored legal and social issues ranging from abortion to blacklisting, but--as a bonus--occasionally even lost.
And sometimes they lost even in winning, as when once learning to their horror that a man they had just gotten off on a murder charge had really done it. The episode ended in that minor key. Can you see that happening in today's TV?
Even the Prestons, though, were too noble to be entirely believed. When it comes to lawyers, the shiny-suit barometer is helpful. If you can't see your reflection in a lawyer's suit, this is no real lawyer.
Instead, TV has given us year after year of idealistic super lawyers.
The lawyer-detective is one of them, sort of embodied in the judge-turned-sleuth character on ABC's "Hardcastle and McCormick." The modern archetype, however, is Erle Stanley Gardner's epic, omnipotent Perry Mason, popularized on TV by Raymond Burr, whose defense of his clients ultimately consists of getting the real murderer to get the shakes, break down and confess on the stand.
At the end of Sunday's Perry Mason revival movie on NBC ("The Case of the Notorious Nun"), moreover, the real murderer never even made it to the stand. Called to testify by Perry, the poor schlub immediately stood in the courtroom and confessed. Case closed.
Did anybody read this blabbermouth his rights? And ruin a good ending? Get serious.
If TV lawyers aren't giants, at least they can be idealists, a la the Prestons or Joyce Davenport of "Hill Street Blues" or the innocent young attorney on the defunct CBS comedy "Foley Square."
TV's banner season for do-gooders, though, was 1970-71, with the launching of look-alike, romanticized law series on CBS and ABC, neither of which would last very long.
"Storefront Lawyers" was about a nonprofit law clinic operated by young attorneys who, like most jurists, would not think of accepting a fee. "The Young Lawyers" was about brilliant, idealistic law students under the supervision of an older attorney. They always seemed to be running--the men with their ties blowing in the wind, creating a sense of action and high drama.
Why didn't they walk like everyone else? Because they were young, utopian and exciting, that's why.
There's also a current renaissance of so-called "reality" law series, via the popular syndicated "People's Court" and "Divorce Court," which are being cloned for fall.
On "People's Court," real litigants--usually two sets to a half-hour--are introduced like starting fives on basketball teams before pleading their cases before a retired judge. On "Divorce Court," real attorneys and actors play out sexually titillating cases before another retired judge, who periodically removes his glasses and nods profoundly as if in heavy thought.
And there's more. We've seen Jimmy Stewart play a hillbilly lawyer in "Hawkins" (1973-74), and Barry Newman play a urbanbilly lawyer who gave up his city practice for small-town law in "Petrocelli" (1974-76). Ron Leibman was a hard-knocks, con-turned-lawyer in "Kaz" (1978-79)--he also played the drums--and Arthur Hill was a fatherly, Marcus Welbyesque lawyer in "Owen Marshall, Counselor at Law" (1971-74).
We've had bickering, opposites-managing-to-get-along lawyers in "Rosetti and Ryan" (1977), and the strait-laced-son-lawyer-managing-to-get-along-with-his-goofy-father in the current "Crazy Like a Fox" on CBS.
And we found the true genius lawyer in "Outrage," a recent CBS movie in which the defense attorney played by Beau Bridges shrewdly plotted his courtroom strategy while chatting with his girlfriend at night. He decided to win his case by questioning our entire legal system. And he did it the next day in court--off the top of his head. No need for research or preparation when you're brilliant.
What all these lawyers have in common is their goodness. Most of them are also supremely talented.
Anyone who regularly visits real trials understands that these programs are broad distortions. Anyone who is in regular contact with lawyers knows that many--perhaps even most--are not gifted.
Most of us don't visit real trials, however, or regularly meet lawyers. But we regularly visit TV. That's why you hear complaints from time to time that TV lawyers raise expectations that cannot be met by real-life lawyers.
You'll do fine, though, if you just remember the barometer: