For The Defense Concluded
Courtroom Dramas Now and Why We May Be Headed Back in the Wrong Direction on TV
In the era of Peak TV and more specifically that of serialized drama, the courtroom drama is an endangered species. I find this ironic because what may very well be the first broadcast series to try and tell one story from beginning to end on network TV was itself a courtroom drama.
Murder One, developed by Steven Bochco in the fall of 1995, followed Defense Attorney Ted Hoffman (indelibly played by Daniel Benzali) represented disgraced Hollywood actor Neil Avedon (Jason Gedrick) for the charge of raping and murdering fourteen year old Jessica Costello, aka ‘Goldilocks’. The series followed the trial from the crime in itself and just about every single aspect of a trial, from the indictment to the grand jury, from the opening arguments to the closing. Murder One had some of the greatest character actors in the history of television, many of them in what was their most significant roles to that date (Patricia Clarkson, Mary McCormack and as the villainous Richard Cross, Stanley Tucci) It was one of the most ambitious network experiments to that time and was critically acclaimed, if not quite as big a hit as ABC had hoped it would be. When the series returned for Season 2, it was indelibly different as several critical actors (including Benzali himself) had left the series. The show tried to reboot itself with Anthony LaPaglia taking over as lead, and splitting the focus from one crime all season to three. There were still moments of brilliance throughout Season 2 (indeed, the final arc would win an Emmy for character actor Pruitt Taylor Vince as a murderer known as ‘The Street Sweeper’) but by that time the audience had forsaken it and the series was officially dead.
Bochco would try a variation on this format for TNT nearly twenty years later on a series called Murder in the First. Focusing mainly on the work of two detectives (Taye Diggs and Kathleen Robertson) the series would follow a case in the same arc, albeit a shorter run. The first season in particular was star studded featuring among others Steven Weber, Tom Felton, Richard Schiff and as the defense attorney James Cromwell. The series would be slightly more successful than Murder One lasting three seasons, but it was never the same kind of success for TNT that series like The Closer or Major Crimes were — it was far too serious. Bochco passed away not long after Murder in the First was cancelled.
The courtroom drama has been disappearing from both broadcast and network television after David E. Kelley started to pull away. The most successful drama dealing with defense attorneys of the 2010s was, of course, The Good Wife which spent the majority of its time dealing with a slightly more upper class (but still financially struggling) law firm in Chicago. Many of the stories had the kind of political plots that would plague the worst aspects of later Kelley series like Boston Legal, but unlike Kelley showrunners Robert and Michelle King were far more focused on the legal aspect and using the political parts to try and work over the juries. Closing arguments were rarer than they were for Kelley as the lion’s share of the cases ended up being either settled or many times not in court at all. And many of the attorneys from Alicia (Juliana Margulies) to Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski) were always questioning the aspects of what they did. In what may be the most famous storyline, the partners made the decision to represent drug dealer Lamont Bishop’s ‘legitimate businesses’ even though with each successive season they got a clearer and clearer idea how murderous and corrupt Bishop was. There were always ethical questions, but they were always discussed in the back rooms never in the courtroom.
When The Good Wife ended, the Kings would spinoff Baranski’s character into The Good Fight where Diane, having gone bankrupt finds herself going from retirement towards employment at a mostly African-American law firm. This series is far more political than The Good Wife ever was, but if anything is more willing to look at the ethics not just of defense attorneys but of the entire legal system we live in. There are characters who are more openly loud and corrupt that are allowed to work at Diane’s firm — Michael Sheen played a character who was willing to break the law in ways Bobby Donnell and Alan Shore never would have dreamed of and more and more often, there was discussion of whether the old standards of law applied in a world so polarized where the loudest voice mattered more than the ethics of the argument. The Good Fight is one of the most incredible series of the last few years, but because it exists on a streaming service that very few people get, both audiences and the Emmys have ignored. (The latter may just be willfully blind to the Kings particular brand of brilliance; for the lion’s share of The Good Wife’s run, it was inexplicably ignored in the Best Drama category over series with ‘White Male Antiheros’ The Kings reaction to this was to have playing in the background in The Good Wife a series that is essentially a lampoon of these kinds of shows.)
While certain series on the air still deal with the courtroom (most of them Dick Wolf based), they are becoming fewer and far between. One of the last truly original ones came from, of all things, Shondaland and no, I’m not talking about How to Get Away with Murder. For the People was an astonishingly brilliant (and for a Shonda Rhimes series, remarkably chaste) courtroom drama set in the district court in New York. It dealt with the prosecutors’ office (led by Ben Shenkman) and the public defenders office (led by Hope Davis). To be sure, like all Shondaland series, the lion’s share of the characters were played by young attractive actors. (Indeed, one of the prosecutors was played by Rege-Jean Page who after the series would explode on Bridgeton.) But there was just as much emphasis on the older characters, including the lead judge, played by Vondie-Curtis Hall and the bailiff played by the always remarkable Anna Deveare Smith. The relationship between both sides was adversarial but in a friendly way. Davis’ and Shenkman’s character ended up, in indelible Rhimes’ fashion, becoming lovers, but they’d been friends for years before that. (One of their regular functions was to divvy up New York Yankee season tickets every year.) And while there was aggression between the two sides, you never got the impression that neither hated each other. Each side didn’t like the other’s approach to the law, but neither thought that the other was the scum of the earth. It was adversarial, but not in a dysfunctional way. All the characters believed in the law, just not the way it was interpreted. And while this may seem a little too pure in extent, both sides lived in the world we do — they knew very well just how broken the justice system was.
In all honesty I think a series like For the People is the kind of series that we need for perspective on the law (and no, I’m still not over that they cancelled it after two seasons even though its ratings were basically the same as the purely soapy Murder). In a sense so many of the defense attorneys were young enough to still have some of their ideals with them, and the prosecutors felt the same way. Maybe that’s the reason the series never gelled the way so many Shondaland series do — it was neither soapy nor cynical enough. Why so many people preferred the actions of Annalyse Keating — a defense attorney willing to frame her own clients to protect her colleagues from the crimes they committed — is beyond me in a sense and yet understandable in another. In this era, particularly in the last few years, we know that the judicial system is broken beyond repair. Murder’s cynicism is far more reasonable than the flawed ideals of For the People. (As I mentioned before this may be the reason the current incarnation of Perry Mason is more fitting to the times that the Raymond Burr version was to its era.)
But if society is to get to the point where we stop viewing the defense attorney as helping break the judicial system, we can not have a world where the defense is the reason it doesn’t work. When Law and Order — the series that I mentioned in the first part of this essay as being a huge part of the flawed perception of the defense attorney — returns to television in February, it has promised to take a different view at how society tries cases. And maybe they will. Maybe we have to rely on the people who helped skew our position to reset it.
I have reasons to doubt Wolf and his writers are the right messengers though as this has never been their strength. The last few years have proved it. Chicago Justice, the fourth series in Wolf’s NBC’s Chicago lineup didn’t last a season. Other series he has tried to deal with this process- Trial by Jury and Conviction — died quickly. For the Defense, yet another Law and Order spinoff was announced then cancelled. And in the most recent arc of Law and Order: Organized Crime, a prosecutor who worked with the detectives on SVU and moved to the defense, represented criminal mastermind Jack Wheatley and got him released after the jury hunger. Olivia Benson, who’d been friends with him for years, said she would never speak to him again and could never forgive him.
That is the world that Dick Wolf and so many other showrunners have created involving defense attorneys for more than thirty years. As we’ve heard for decades, ‘the people’ in the criminal justice system are the ones he always been interested in. And it’s that phrase I keep coming back to now: “the people are represented.” The people.
The thing is the criminals and defense attorneys represent the people too — probably on a demographic base far more real than the ones we’ve seen on television. We’ve known for decades that so many of these ‘criminals’ have been mishandled, lied to or otherwise railroaded by ‘the police who investigate crimes’ And that ‘the district attorneys have far more resources and more of inclination to ‘prosecute the offenders’ then listen to their stories with an open mind. The defense attorneys are far more understaffed and have less ability to defend their clients than a prosecutor is. They are just as much ‘the people’ as well and deserve to be regarded with the same respect. But TV series never have. And no matter how much we want society to change, the medium that is in every house in America, probably never will. The world has always been in shades of gray. And no matter how much television changes, the courtroom drama still sees things in black and white.