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Lawyers Flip Through the Channels, Seeking Justice

Television: In a new book, an L.A. professor and his colleagues gauge the accuracy of depictions of the legal profession.

September 10, 1998|ROBERT STRAUSS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Like many viewers, Paul Joseph has his own idea of the perfect television series. As a science-fiction fan and a law professor, Joseph would love to combine the two in "Buck Zeal: Space Lawyer."

"I haven't sold the rights just yet," said Joseph, with only a slight laugh. "But even though ["Star Trek" creator] Gene Roddenberry said, 'There are no lawyers in the 23rd century,' even he couldn't keep the law from invading his show. Law is everywhere in TV, even in outer space."

Joseph has set out to prove this thesis as co-editor (with fellow Nova Southeastern Law School professor Robert M. Jarvis) of "Prime Time Law: Fictional Television as Legal Narrative" (Carolina Academic Press, $17.50). The two have gathered academic friends and acquaintances to write 17 essays on such topics as lawyers on westerns, the inequality of female lawyers on the tube, and the seminal "liberal legalism" of "The Defenders."

"Whatever you want to say about TV, it is a teacher, and people take it seriously," Joseph said. "We were concerned about the view of lawyers that television teaches. But for better or worse, that's how people look at lawyers--and when TV does it well, we should note it."

Joseph wrote the essay on science fiction and the law. He said that in science-fiction TV, there is a lot of law, but very few lawyers.

"It's hard to bring one in from another galaxy, I guess," he said. "If they have a trial on science-fiction TV, they find a way for a main character to serve as a lawyer or advocate."

A favorite space-law episode of Joseph's comes from "Star Trek: The Next Generation," in which Capt. Picard is defending the android Data, who doesn't want to be dis-assembled as part of a scientific study. Picard gives a closing argument asking the court not to sacrifice Data's "personal liberty and freedom"--that disassembling him would amount to making him a slave.

"You see, science fiction speculates change, and you have to worry about how to cope with this change," Joseph said. "That brings us to law and government and morality and politics. Whether or not Roddenberry wanted lawyers, you have to impart some kind of dispute resolution system to have a credible fiction."

Though "Prime Time Law" has individual chapters on well-respected TV lawyers such as Perry Mason, Ben Matlock and the folks on "L.A. Law," the general story the book tells about the portrayal of lawyers on television is somewhat negative.

In situation comedies, as Jarvis' essay shows, lawyers are more often buffoonish than regal. Jarvis notes that the first regular sitcom lawyer was Algonquin J. Calhoun, the double-talking, disbarred hipster on "Amos 'n' Andy." Few sitcom lawyers of the 1950s and '60s were that poorly portrayed, but a lot were seen being outwitted by those presumably less smart than they: George Baxter was often trumped by his maid in "Hazel"; Bentley Gregg was befuddled by his niece in "Bachelor Father"; and Oliver Wendell Douglas was constantly bamboozled by his "Green Acres" neighbors.

In recent years, save for "Night Court," writes Jarvis, lawyers in sitcoms are either rarely shown practicing (such as Clair Huxtable on "The Cosby Show" or Ernest Frye on "Amen") or the sitcoms themselves were short-lived ("Sara," "Foley Square," "Life's Work"). Jarvis questions whether the seriocomic Ally McBeal may fall into this negative-portrayal mode.

"Like Oliver Douglas," he writes, "Ally is a Harvard Law School graduate who finds herself in surreal situations which serve to remind viewers of her various struggles. And . . . Ally's crises often seem contrived and trivial."

For Louisiana State University law professor Christine Alice Corcos, Ally may be representative of women in law on TV in general, most of whom, she writes in her essay, are treated as weak and whiny because that is what is most comfortable for viewers.

"The television industry gives us unflattering portrayals of female attorneys because it believes that is what is most comfortable for us," writes Corcos, noting everything from C.J. Lamb's ridiculous leather skirts in "L.A. Law" to Sydney Guilford's posing nude in "Civil Wars."

In westerns, too, according to the meticulously researched essay by St. Louis University law professor Francis M. Nevins, lawyers have generally been taken to be either bumbling boobs or vile slicksters.

Joseph professes not to be so concerned about this sort of negative depiction of lawyers on television, especially when the law itself, and the process of the legal system, is shown in an interesting and accurate way.

A favorite episode of his from last season was the one from "The Practice" that won the American Bar Assn.'s Silver Gavel Award.

In it, the firm is appointed to represent a death-row inmate at the same time a documentary film crew is following members of the firm around. The film crew asks the attorneys pointed questions about how they feel doing what they have to do to help out on the appeal of a presumed murderer.

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