Elizabeth Canterbury: Any lawyer that dodges a sound bite ought to be disbarred.
Russell Krauss: There’s a gag order. You can’t speak anyway.
Canterbury: You’ve known me a long time, Russell. My mere presence speaks volumes.
— Canterbury’s Law, Episode One
“You’re a fighter, Liz. That’s why I signed on. So can we please see the fight?”
That’s what young, dashing attorney Chester Grant (played by Keith Robinson) tells our leading lady Elizabeth Canterbury (Julianna Margulies) in the fifth episode of Canterbury’s Law. And he says it with a mixture of respect (as a member of Canterbury’s law firm), motivation (as Elizabeth Canterbury’s friend), and exasperation (as a person ready to face a challenge but constantly being told to wait).
Why, you might ask, is an associate in a small Providence, Rhode Island law firm talking to his senior partner like this?
Answer: Elizabeth Canterbury has been indicted by a grand jury and faces possible (see also: probable) disbarment and a prison sentence for jury tampering and for coaching a client to perjure himself in hopes of securing an acquittal in a murder trial.
What’s intriguing about Chester’s plea to “see the fight” is that it’s not the usual “these-charges-are-bogus-because-you’re-innocent” motivational speech. As a matter of fact, she’s not innocent, and Chester knows it. She absolutely committed the crimes! She deliberately sent a private detective (“Frank Angstrom”, played by James McCaffrey) to not-so-accidentally meet “Juror Number Seven” (Edelen McWilliams) in her trial, scavenging for any tidbit that would tell Canterbury whether or not the jury believed her client’s true-but-too-convenient alibi story.
Oh, did I mention that Canterbury has been cheating on her husband with Frank Angstrom? Wow, right?
But don’t feel too sorry for her husband Matt Furey (Aiden Quinn), a law professor and a former federal prosecutor. Apparently, one of his cute, eager law students (“Carly”) has been occupying his time after class.
Anyway, Canterbury’s client, Ethan Foster (Charlie Hofheimer), was asleep at the time that a boy named Tommy Jasper was murdered. Unfortunately for Canterbury’s case, Foster had already confessed to killing the child when the police questioned him, and Canterbury wasn’t making any headway with her theory that the police illegally obtained the confession by withholding her client’s medication from him. Upon learning that the jury wasn’t buying her client’s alibi, Canterbury convinces Foster to take the witness stand and abandon his true story in favor of a lie.
And what a lie it was! The new version of the story is that he was at Tommy Jasper’s house on the night of the murder, which is in line with his earlier and potentially coerced confession, but he also claims he saw the victim’s hothead father, Scott Jasper, beating the boy. Canterbury’s strategy all along was to cast suspicion on the dad, but the judge prohibited any evidence of this sort because she failed to provide any witnesses to the dad’s abuse. Her client’s false testimony forces the Deputy Attorney General, the rabid Canterbury-hating Zach Williams (Terry Kinney), to call the hothead father to the stand as a rebuttal witness.
This of course gives Canterbury the wiggle room she needs to secure an acquittal. Armed with a provocative, if direct, line of questioning (“You beat your son”), Canterbury goads the hothead father into flashing his rage. Once his adrenaline gets going, he punches Canterbury in the face like he’s Mike Tyson in his prime, knocking her flat on her backside with her paperwork snowing down around her. Abracadabra! The client gets to go home, Canterbury has committed ethical violations that are sure to haunt her, and Zach Williams is more committed than ever to getting revenge on the woman he calls a “bottom-feeding b*tch”.
Oh, did I mention that Canterbury’s client was a convicted sex offender? When he was 20, he slept with his 15-year-old girlfriend. Then, at the end of the pilot episode, we learn another piece of confounding information. Three years earlier, Elizabeth Canterbury’s son Sam was abducted at a playground. She turned her head to take a cell phone call and, just like that, the child was gone. Probably, the disappearance of her son was designed to offer us a rationale for Canterbury’s behavior in her court cases, as well as to add irony to her representation of a registered sex offender and accused child killer. Thus, her personal devastation contributes to her professional decadence, a pattern that could’ve been more thoroughly developed over the course of a 22-episode season.
Canterbury’s Law had its problems, but it also had potential. Since the FOX network cancelled it after the sixth episode, we didn’t get to see whether Elizabeth Canterbury and the crusading members of her firm would challenge the limits of the usual legal drama. I agree with Chester Grant. The clever, emotionally troubled character of Elizabeth Canterbury had a great deal of fight in her. That’s why I signed on when the pilot aired. When I heard about the release of Canterbury’s Law: The Complete Series, I was certain we’d get to see the rest of her fight.
Clearly, I was incorrect.
Despite its accuracy, it irks me that this DVD set is listed as “the complete series”. As I’ve already noted, there are only six episodes and plenty of unresolved plot points. Besides, you’d think a two-disc set housing so little actual screen time would take advantage of the extra space. But it doesn’t.
I suppose I was spoiled by the DVD package for Day Break, the Taye Diggs-helmed show about a police detective framed for the murder of a district attorney. Although Diggs’s “Brett Hopper” is determined to clear his name, he quickly discovers that he’s trapped in a time loop, living the same terrible day over and over again. Each day he wakes up with a new plan to extricate himself, only to learn that each new action creates a new consequence.
Just as FOX did with Canterbury’s Law, ABC let loose the guillotine on Day Break after the sixth episode. Other episodes were viewable online, but I don’t make a habit of watching television on my computer. However, when the Day Break DVD was released, it contained all 13 episodes comprising the show’s “season”, along with commentaries on every single episode, interviews with the cast and crew, behind-the-scenes footage, and photo galleries.
As pretty as the Canterbury’s Law packaging and discs are — and the presentation is quite pleasing — there isn’t enough content.
There aren’t any witty commentaries from the director and the producers about, hypothetically speaking, how they had to shoot certain scenes in California and then figure out how to make it look like Rhode Island. Or, conversely, how they shot on location in Rhode Island but had to rush back to California for editing.
We don’t get any of those out-of-context deleted scenes that make you say, “Yeah, they were right to keep that one out.”
We don’t get any discussion from the cast and crew. I wouldn’t have minded a clip of Julianna Margulies outlining what attracted her to this character, and how she would assess it next to her longstanding “Nurse Carol Hathaway” character on ER. Heck, I’d even take a word or two from executive producer Denis Leary, even if he just popped in to plug a Rescue Me DVD. He’s funny. Sometimes.
Or how about a gag reel, with bloopers and other assorted foul-ups? They might’ve earned another point in my rating if Margulies, playing on her appearance with Samuel L. Jackson in the film Snakes on a Plane, had belted out during a blooper sequence, “Enough is enough! I have had it with these motherf*cking lawyers in this motherf*cking courthouse!”
A man can dream, can’t he?
Too bad this show got canceled. Look at all the potential here.
We’ve got an intelligent, brave, and attractive leading lady in Elizabeth Canterbury who’s suffering from the pain of a missing child while indulging in alcohol, extramarital affairs, and ethically-challenged legal strategies.
We’ve also got an assortment of side characters with their own agendas (embittered prosecutor Zach Williams’s own set of ethical challenges), fears (Canterbury associate Molly McConnell’s lack of courtroom experience), and idiosyncrasies (Chester Grant’s flamboyant fashion sense, akin to a young Johnnie Cochran). Out of this crop of side characters, kudos go to Ben Shenkman’s portrayal of Ms. Canterbury’s law partner Russell Krauss.
Not only is Shenkman’s everyman persona and pragmatism a welcome change to Canterbury’s antics (hey, she cross-examines an overweight witness on the fact that he’s too heavyset to see his own feet), but his basic rhythm and comedic timing just seem to get better with each episode. By episode six, Shenkman had really hit his stride with “Russell Krauss”, to the point that I started to wonder if FOX ever thought about sending Elizabeth Canterbury to jail for the jury tampering, and trying out a Krauss’s Law spin-off.
Plus, Shenkman’s “Krauss” has a goldmine of a history. He worked in the district attorney’s office alongside Zach Williams, but was ousted when he rebelled against Williams’s tactics. Having known Elizabeth Canterbury since law school, Krauss seeks refuge as her friend and business partner, suddenly forced to sit on the opposite side of the ideological spectrum as a defense attorney instead of a prosecutor. It happens often enough in the real United States legal system, but you don’t often see television lawyers jumping from the prosecution side to the defense side, or vice versa. James Woods’s “Sebastian Stark” on Shark jumped from big time defense attorney to prosecutor, but that didn’t last long, as the show was cancelled.
But, given the novelty of the maneuver, a lot could’ve been done with the Krauss back-story, and some of it manifests in these six episodes. We are treated to Krauss’s ability to cozy up to his former colleagues to extract sensitive information and Krauss’s chances to rectify mistakes he’s made as a prosecutor by defending people who were wrongly and unjustly convicted.
Likewise, Chester Grant’s side plots also became increasingly developed. The son of a well-to-do entrepreneur (see also: slum lord) and senatorial candidate Miles Grant, Chester harbors a significant amount of disdain for politics and status, although he’s clearly not above legal gamesmanship and helping Elizabeth Canterbury get away with her felonies. In the sixth episode, he faces the impact of his upbringing when he takes a civil case against a grossly negligent landlord and realizes that he has perhaps allowed his biases to taint his legal reasoning.
On the other hand Molly McConnell, the other associate in Canterbury’s firm, does a good job of representing a layperson’s perspective on the law, exalting her personal opinions above legal theories. Relatively fresh out of law school, Molly’s experience as a practitioner is close to nil, and we quickly learn that she failed the Rhode Island bar exam the first time around. Some of her objections to the firm’s cases involve an understandable opposition to enabling child murderers, rapists, and the like, but there’s a big difference between enabling criminals and providing them with a legal defense, not to mention the principle that defendants are supposed to innocent until proven guilty — at least from their own lawyers’ perspectives. The moments when Canterbury has to remind her of this are really irritating.
Despite actor Terry Kinney’s track record for awesomeness, I wasn’t as impressed with his much-too-static Zach Williams character as I should have been. After all, he’s the designated nemesis. It’s not clear why he hates Canterbury so much, other than the fact that she keeps beating him in court. The heroic effort he pours into prosecuting a case is compromised by his lack of foresight. In the Ethan Foster case, for instance, it seems logical that a prosecutor familiar with Canterbury’s tactics would have prepared the hothead father for her onslaught before calling him to the witness stand. At the very least, he needed some screen time to say, “Hey, Mr. Jasper. Watch your back. She’ll try to make you look like a monster.” She had already disclosed her belief that the victim’s father was an abuser, at least, and a murderer, at worst. For him to sit back and watch Scott Jasper, and with him the whole case, explode in response to lukewarm questioning is unbelievable.
Of course, Elizabeth Canterbury is the main reason to watch Canterbury’s Law and it is in regard to this character that the show held so much promise. I’m not sure people really understand how dynamic Ms. Canterbury could have been in the landscape of television lawyers, particularly female ones. Reviews and promotional blurbs describe her as “rebellious”, “a force of nature”, “cunning”, “shrewd”, and “tough-minded”.
In this way, she’s often compared to Glenn Close’s “Patty Hewes” from FX’s Damages, although I’m puzzled by the comparison. Damages doesn’t even weave courtroom scenes into its narrative. Patty Hewes, whose primarily a civil attorney and not a defense attorney, is indeed cunning and shrewd, always sizing up the other people in the room, always planning her next move. It’s Glenn Close’s eyes that sell that character, as she seems to look straight through the people who share scenes with her. Patty Hewes is the ultimate ice queen, a master manipulator, and an expert at misdirection. Her personal life is a mess because she’s neglected it at the expense of her law career, and that’s because she conducts her personal life like it’s a law practice. Hewes can be vulnerable, but she’s never far away from a backdrop of deception.
Comparatively, Elizabeth Canterbury is definitely determined and she doesn’t back down from a fight, but her identity goes beyond her job or a single personality trait. She’s also sensitive, kind, and empathetic, even when she’s cheating on her husband, breaking the law, or ignoring Russell Krauss’s sound advice. Patty Hewes and Elizabeth Canterbury are both women, and that’s pretty much where the similarities end. Lumping them together misinterprets the picture Canterbury’s Law was trying to paint. To my recollection, Canterbury probably has more in common with Kim Delaney’s “Kathleen Maguire”, the fashionable defense attorney of Steven Bochco-produced Philly. That show didn’t last long either.
Canterbury’s identity, then, is malleable and adaptive. She is a social chameleon who opens the series getting dressed for court with an astute awareness of her makeup, hairdo, high heels, and gigantic shirt collars. “I need ignorant juries,” she says, after hopping out of bed with her lover. “I need them worried. And I need them to trust me. And that comes down to whether this shirt brings out my eyes.”
As easily as she creates an illusion for the jury, she’s meeting with her despondent client to not only aid his defense but also to keep him optimistic. Later in the series, she turns on the charm with her husband’s university colleagues and gets chatty about relatively random U.S. Supreme Court cases and Constitutional amendments. She is a lawyer, a counselor, a grieving mother, an estranged wife, an adulteress, an uncommitted lover, a stubborn partner, an unpredictable boss, a friend, and a criminal. And that’s just in the six episodes that aired!
Her adaptive strengths become significant when you consider the typical TV roles for women as well as the television and social stereotypes associated with the legal profession. In my review of Ghost Whisperer: The Second Season, I argued that female television characters have been split between “heady” types and “body” types, making it rare for female characters to embody the “total package”. The “Heady” types can be labeled as “Scattered” (intelligent, but insecure), “Tough” (sarcastic, cold, and ruthless), or “Flighty” (nice and whimsical, but not too bright). The “Body” types are either athletic butt kickers or sultry temptresses.
I further argued that Ghost Whisperer‘s “Melinda Gordon” (Jennifer Love Hewitt) had the potential to blend her “headiness” with her “sexiness”, resulting in a relatively well-rounded and independent character. I guess the people behind Ghost Whisperer were determined to prove me wrong, since they decided to kill off Melinda’s husband “Jim Clancy” (David Conrad) and turn Melinda into a broken shell of a woman, and a hypocrite. Her mission has been to help the spirits of the dead “crossover” into “the light” by letting go of earthly attachments. With the “dead hubby” storyline, the spirit of Melinda’s husband “jumps” into the body of a dying man, and Melinda seems content to go along with it, pretty much abandoning the premise behind what we’ve been watching all this time. She’s now in love with the “new” guy, although when she looks at “New Guy” she sees her husband’s face — everyone else just sees “New Guy”. It reeks of desperation, from the creators as well as the character, and it’s really quite pitiful.
In contrast to the Melinda Gordon character, which I believed was initially integrated in mind and body, Elizabeth Canterbury’s potential emanates from her total disintegration. Elizabeth Canterbury is intelligent, smart, sexy, crafty, vulnerable, flighty, self-indulgent, and whole host of other things. But she isn’t all of those things at the same time. She is completely in shambles, and from her wreckage I was hoping the evolution of the show would reveal the particulars of her worldview. How does she keep going after being devastated by her son’s disappearance and the guilt she heaps on herself? What’s her motivation to get up in the morning? How does she handle fashioning justice for others when she hasn’t been afforded justice in her own life? Canterbury defies the typical categorization of female television characters by falling into nearly every category at one time or another. That’s kind of fresh, and I wanted to see where it would go.
The gender issue is compounded by the norms for television legal dramas in the United States. I contend that the originality of the Elizabeth Canterbury character becomes obscured by the show’s unoriginal form as a legal procedural. Since most TV lawyers on U.S. television are involved in the criminal justice system rather than civil cases, I’ll organize the “criminal law” lawyers into the following categories:
Category A (The Esquire): Affable and cordial, The Esquire enthusiastically represents a continuous stream of wrongly accused clients. Usually, the charge is murder, and the client is hapless, sufficiently clueless, and framed by the machinations of the actual guilty person. Sometimes the client has been mistakenly identified by the misdirected goodwill of an eyewitness (i.e. the client has a long lost twin).
The Esquire wins cases with what I call the “Aha! Moment”. That’s the moment in the show when the “smoking gun” is revealed, when the real criminal gets tripped up, and there’s no doubt that The Esquire’s client is guilty. The “Aha! Moment” is likely to occur during the cross-examination of the guilty party: “Aha! How could you have been eating ice cream at the time of the murder when all of the ice cream in town had melted due to the recent heat wave?” Think Perry Mason and Matlock here, or Joe Pesci in the film My Cousin Vinny.
In general, people don’t want to believe that innocent people go to jail without an identifiable reason. That’s why The Esquire so often pinpoints the real criminal or discovers a bona fide mistake. Also, people generally don’t like lawyers. That’s why The Esquire is so well-mannered even though someone’s life could potentially be ruined at the end of the trial.
Category B (The Prosecutor): This is the tough-as-nails prosecutor. He or she is typically troubled by the tidal wave of crime and corruption flooding the city’s streets. He or she is visibly moved by the plights of specific victims and families. You’ll hear these characters talk about the “message” that will be sent if prosecutor and defendant cut a deal that gives the defendant less jail time for a crime or if the prosecutor considers charging the defendant with a crime punishable by more a lenient sentence than the prosecutor (or the public) thinks the defendant deserves.
Some TV prosecutors are only interested in racking up convictions, which may help them later in their careers for public office. Some will push the boundaries of legal ethics to put clients in prison. Sometimes, in order to further the plot, TV prosecutors will completely disregard a defendant’s Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution without viewers even realizing it.
The TV prosecutor gets away with this because, as much as people don’t want to believe innocent people are wrongly convicted, they like the idea that guilty people are going to jail. Therefore, the TV prosecutor need not “play by the rules” as long as the guilty guy gets punished. He was a murderer, right? So what if he wasn’t allowed to talk to his lawyer? He’s guilty! Heck, the TV prosecutor doesn’t even have to be likable. TV Prosecutors tend to be tenacious and singularly focused on their professional lives. They don’t seem like they’d be much fun to hang out with. For this category, consider shows like Law & Order and performances like John Larroquette’s Assistant District Attorney Dan Fielding on the sitcom Night Court or James Woods as “Sebastian Stark” on Shark.
Category C (The Zealot): This is the anything-goes defense attorney who will risk career and reputation in the relentless pursuit of a “not guilty” verdict. Like The Esquire, The Zealot might be interested in making sure justice is served but, increasingly, this breed of television attorney is more interested in winning. The Zealot sees the courtroom as a playground, where rules are flexible and the legal system is composed of “players”.
When James Spader’s “Alan Shore” joined the cast of David E. Kelley’s The Practice, he was an antitrust attorney who was fired from his old firm for embezzlement. He likened himself to Robinhood, saying, “I stole from the rich.” But there was a twist. When asked what he did with the money, he responded, “I kept it.” Alan Shore brought that same swagger to criminal law, arrogance and all, but with a glimmer of The Esquire’s sensitivity for the less fortunate. That character transitioned from The Practice to full-time smart aleck on Boston Legal.
The Zealot’s tactics are underhanded and are likely to raise the ire and disapproval of other characters. They have no trouble doing any of the following: breaking the legal system’s sacred no-snitching code of attorney-client privilege, deliberately misleading opposing counsel, attacking witnesses (even rape victims), coaching witnesses to lie, exploiting romantic liaisons between a judge and the opposing counsel’s firm to get the judge removed from the case, hacking into the files of other attorneys, bribing judges and witnesses, and the list goes on.
Viewers don’t want guilty people to go free, and The Zealot regularly deals with guilty clients. What saves The Zealot is either (1) the principle that representation of the guilty ultimately safeguards the rights of the innocent, (2) the guilty person goes free but eventually faces karmic justice, or (3) The Zealot struggles with his or her morality. The beauty of The Zealot is that these characters raise profound ethical and moral issues. They find the shades of gray in the black letter of the law, forcing us to reexamine our perceptions of the legal system and its purposes.
Although her firm does handle civil cases, Elizabeth Canterbury herself only handles high publicity criminal trials in these six episodes. From what I can tell, she is a combination of The Esquire and The Zealot. Through her, Canterbury’s Law raised questions about the classic justifications for criminal punishment, such as deterring criminal activity, rehabilitating offenders, and allowing society to seek retribution for criminal acts.
That her personal life has fallen into disrepair might be seen as the cost of pursuing justice, the toll that must be paid to defend the innocent, but it is also the cost of stretching herself thin in her variety of roles. In the pilot, she even remarks that she’s fine with herself and the work that she does, saying, “I sleep — the sleep of the righteous.” But she’s not fine with herself, she isn’t sleeping well, and she isn’t completely sold on her own righteousness. Her awareness of her discomfort meant there was potential for growth.
As Elizabeth Canterbury was amenable to “crossing the line”, the potential was there to examine exactly where “the line” should be placed and, just as significantly, who gets to decide on the placement. Unfortunately, most of the other characters are more ideologically rigid, and not so subtly drawn, battling on clearly defined “sides”. Coupled with overly familiar courtroom scenes, it’s easy to lose sight of what made Canterbury unique.