[24 September 2010]
O.J. Simpson. Sam Sheppard. Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. Lizzie Borden. Paris Hilton. We love to argue about the guilt or innocence of those accused in sensational legal cases, even making sentence recommendations. And yet, no matter how saturated the media coverage, most of these high-profile trials leave us in the dark: we can never know the truth, either what happened or why, which means all we can offer is conjecture.
Over the years, numerous procedural shows have tapped into our desire to know. Most of these provide enough information that you can feel assured as to whether justice has been done by episodes’ ends. Some—like the CSIs—provide grim and/or glossy forensics images to leave us at least feeling like we’ve been informed. Fox’s short-lived Justice went another, even more explicit route, ending each episode by revealing “the truth.” Viewers weren’t interested, perhaps because we take a certain joy in being able to argue about the outcome (or perhaps because the show was disappointing in other ways).
ABC has returned to that formula with The Whole Truth, which is, like Justice and the CSIs, produced by Jerry Bruckheimer. Unlike Justice, which focused on the defense, The Whole Truth offers equal time to both prosecutors and defense teams, so that viewers are equally aware of both arguments. While Justice presented a scene at the end of each episode explaining the crime, The Whole Truth merely shows the audience the final piece of the jigsaw puzzle. In the case of the premiere episode, airing 22 September, it was the discovery of a key bit of evidence by one of the trial witnesses. The show created some curiosity as to how the case was resolved, but it was difficult to become fully invested in the outcome: we learned a little about the victim and accused, both good and both bad, neither especially sympathetic.
The series focuses specifically on the battles between prosecutor Kathryn Peale (Maura Tierney) and defense attorney Jimmy Brogan (Rob Morrow), former Yale Law School classmates who repeatedly square off in court, a fact that stretches credulity, given the series’ location in Manhattan. Both are highly skilled professionals, driven and undistracted—so far—by anything else. Kathryn could be speaking for both of them when she observed, “I love the law. It is the only thing I’m good at. Just ask anyone who’s unfortunate enough to be involved in my personal life.” A tough, gun-shooting broad who likes to quote the great philosophers, Kathryn’s more or less matched by Jimmy, who grew up in Hell’s Kitchen and says things like “Done, done, and doner.”
Both like to win, as is evidenced in the premiere episode when they went to trial in the case of Glenn Sellards (Rick Kelley), a teacher accused of raping and killing a student. Yes, emotions ran high: the opening scenes had Sellards’ son (Shane Zwiner) and the victim’s father rush one another to fight outside the courthouse. And both have the usual teams of young, good-looking assistants, ethnically diverse. Sadly, none of these kids seems quite competent, as Jimmy and Kathryn repeatedly were caught off-guard during trial by their own witnesses’ answers. I’ve never been to law school, but even I know to never ask a question in trial to which you don’t know the answer.
Instead of such logic, the series offers the back-and-forth gimmick, timed in accordance with the commercial breaks. In the first episode, we saw the prosecution building its case, commercial, the defense responding to the prosecution’s evidence, commercial, the prosecution…and so on. It isn’t until the trial began that we saw the opponents in the same room. It left my head spinning, as I speculated, “He did it. He’s innocent. He did it. He’s… oh, who cares?”
“Who cares?” is a problem. We like to speculate on the outcomes of trials because we like the adversarial arena. We like to take outcomes personally, as evidenced by the riots that have followed verdicts in controversial trials (and sporting events). The Whole Truth does some things well, most notably, the sharp performances and the edgy cinematography of Anette Haellmigk. But it denies viewers the opportunity to become invested in this adversarial procedure, to pick a side and a root for an outcome. We cheered for Jack McCoy to convict the scumbag criminal on Law & Order and for Ally McBeal to speak out for the wrongly accused. Here, there are no easy answers, but the difficulty doesn’t tax viewers’ intellectual curiosity so much as their patience.