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HOWARD ROSENBERG

Jury Still Out On Tv Law Shows

February 26, 1987|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Are TV law shows something? Perry Mason and Rose Bird in one week.

Bird, the recently ousted California Supreme Court chief justice, makes an appearance today on "Superior Court" (4 p.m. on KHJ-TV Channel 9), one of those syndicated series that make law seem laughable and trials trivial.

Speaking of laughs, that old fox Perry Mason did it again Monday.

He got his old flame Laura Kilgallen to break down and confess her guilt on the stand during her husband's murder trial in "Perry Mason: The Case of the Lost Love" on NBC. The confession was so shocking that the judge forgot to inform Laura of her right to have her own lawyer present.

So maybe the trial did not reflect reality. So maybe, who cares?

Perry makes perfect fun, not perfect law.

"It is difficult to look at you and not see Perry Mason," Bryant Gumbel told Raymond Burr, TV's famous Perry, on the "Today" program recently. Forget Burr. For years, it was difficult to look at real lawyers and not see--or expect--Perry Mason.

Erle Stanley Gardner's never-makes-a-wrong-move hero was a tough act for real trial attorneys to follow. And some years, when it came to courtroom drama, he was the only act.

Today, though, there are almost as many courtrooms as living rooms on TV.

On NBC alone, you find them on gritty, eclectic and appealing "L.A. Law" and on hayseedy "Matlock," practitioner of Hee Haw Law. But most of the action--and the trials depicted as extended punch lines--are in daytime.

Count 'em--four syndicated law series that blur reality and fantasy. First came the enormously popular "People's Court" in 1981. That was followed by the successful "Divorce Court" in 1984. And joining them this season are "Superior Court" and "The Judge."

After a while, they start looking alike.

"People's Court" (3:30 p.m. on KCBS-TV Channel 2)--real judge, real litigants, phony setting. "Divorce Court"(3 p.m. on Channel 2)--real judge, real attorneys, actors as litigants. "Superior Court"--real judge, actors as lawyers and litigants. And finally, here come "The Judge" (4:30 p.m. on Channel 9)--all actors.

At a time of increased skepticism about the criminal justice system, TV is doing little in a sustained way to explain any of the judicial system.

A recent PBS special made an attempt, but that sort of valiant effort along with rare televised trials on CNN are the exceptions. For the most part, TV is content with news coverage of spectacular criminal trials consisting of the obligatory sound bite of sensational testimony and quickie interviews with opposing attorneys outside the courtroom.

These daytime series do little to help, for the most part. With the possible exception of "People's Court," they distort the legal process far more than they demystify.

Even when they attempt to convey importance and relevance.

Bird's appearance on "Superior Court," for example, is part of the show's weeklong celebration of the Bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution. The show's regular judge, William D. Burns, has been temporarily replaced on the bench this week by Bird and other former judges. And U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun is appearing at the end of each segment, saying a few nondescript words about the Constitution--today he gets 30 seconds--that he could have mailed in on a postcard.

Former California Court of Appeals Justice Bernard Jefferson began the week presiding over an abortion-rights trial whose amateurish depiction trivialized the legal issue.

It doesn't get much better today for Bird's book-banning case, whose characters are mostly overwritten, overacted stereotypes. In a real crackup, a librarian breaks down and admits she's lying a la Perry Mason, and the rest of the treatment is so hackneyed that the First Amendment issue all but drops out of sight.

The opposing attorneys must fit their closing arguments into a combined 65 seconds--no need to get wordy--and all Bird has to do is stay awake, make an occasional comment and deliver a brief, eloquent judgment.

Each episode is preceded by a reminder that these are real cases and "only the names and certain incidents have been changed. . . " However, distortion is inevitable. At the very least, it's hard to take seriously a format that limits trials to 22 minutes and reduces sticky legal issues to bumper stickerese.

If that were the case in real life, there would be no backlog in the courts.

And if "Divorce Court" were reality, the courtroom would be clogged by spectators for the comedy alone.

A revival of an earlier "Divorce Court," this program has made a TV star out of retired Judge William Keene. The attorneys are real, the litigants actors and the cases--supposedly loosely based on actual cases--usually have a sexy, prurient twist.

In a recent episode, the opposing lawyers were also the litigants, grilling each other on the stand. Lawyer/wife to lawyer/husband, after completing her interrogation of him: "You may cross-examine yourself."

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