Law & Order: Trial by Jury

The search for Friday night ratings magic heats up with the arrival of the fourth variation on the Law & Order franchise, Law & Order: Trial by Jury. In aggressive audience-grabber mode, NBC broadcast a preview episode in the ER slot on Thursday, before the show opened in its regular Friday time, most recently owned by Medical Investigation. While it’s hard to mourn the end of this show’s first season, well-acted but rendering the repeated threat of out-of-control mystery plagues mind-numbingly dull, it’s also hard to celebrate another Law & Order clone, especially on the evidence of the first two episodes.

Despite publicity rhetoric that promises a medley of points of view on a case — prosecutors, judge, jury, and defense lawyers — the promotional photos adhere to L&O formula. Here stand two investigators, Lennie Briscoe (the late Jerry Orbach) and Hector Salazar (Kirk Acevedo), two Assistant District Attorneys, Tracy Kibre (Bebe Neuwirth) and Kelly Gaffney (Amy Carlson) and head honcho, Arthur Branch (Fred Dalton Thomas). The first two episodes reveal weaknesses in both character and story development which the more concentrated drama of the earlier iterations in the franchise obscures. But casting choices do offer some variety, as does the ensemble’s cynical legal maneuvering.

Although a curly hairdo can’t quite erase the shade of Frasier‘s Lilith from Tracy Kibre, Neuwirth slips authoritatively into the role of a powerful mid-career prosecutor. The decision to abandon the imitation-male tailored suits worn by other female DAs in the franchise signals a very welcome, and very overdue, broadening of the shows’ portrayals of “successful women.” In the second episode, Kibre even wears trousers to court, and her casual sweaters and scarves represent a scrappier working woman than the unattainable cashmere cool of any one of Jack McCoy’s assistants.

The hiring of high-octane acting talent for the defense attorneys adds some spice to this mix, although the writing and story development grant neither of the first two guest stars, Annabella Sciorra (as Maggie Dettweiler) and Peter Coyote (as Mike LaSalle), much complexity. If the show is genuinely interested in developing a rounded view of defense strategy, instead of paying lip service to multiple viewpoints, it will need to expand defense lawyers into characters, not just guests.

Trial by Jury‘s defense lawyers are denizens of the lower circles of hell, human embodiments of unmitigated sleaziness and self-interest. La Salle is a crass ambulance chaser, dedicated only to shaking his client like a money tree. Sciorra’s character is equally one-dimensional. When her client confesses calmly to the murder of which he is accused, she barely blinks, and the show subsequently offers viewers no insight into what she might feel, or what conflicts she might face. Indeed, while the first two episodes of Trial by Jury give defense lawyers and their clients more screen time unmediated by prosecutors, they don’t quite probe the nuances of defense practice.

This lack of nuance contributes to the obvious cynicism on both sides of the legal process in Trial by Jury. Both Kibre and La Salle, in the second episode, are willing to push distraught family members into competing photo ops, pitting the media appeal of a young cop’s widow and her children versus that of an African American shot 41 times by police. Talk of “what can we win” instead of “what should we pursue” dominates the District Attorney’s morning meeting with his staff, and the work of the two investigators involves digging up potential hazards to the ADA’s case rather than uncovering what actually happened. So single-minded is this approach that it begins to feel almost like propaganda.

Yet when the series focuses in on the gritty details that fuel this cynicism, it can fascinate. The sequence where a high-priced jury consultant tracks a dummy jury’s reaction to Dettweiler’s first draft of her opening statement, and then deploys those reactions to chart out her opening line and signpost phrases is genuinely chilling. But these moments are few and far between. More common is the cursory drama-by-numbers vote-counting in the jury room, or the abysmally literal judge’s view of the case, a repeated over-the-shoulder shot as Judge Amanda Anderlee (Candice Bergen) enters the court.

The effective multi-character ensemble drama requires precise attention to every detail of every scene, including the crafting of compelling three-line, never-to-be-seen-again characters (the jury room seems an obvious place for these). It also benefits from a compassionate fascination with even the most apparently repellant of characters, an artistic alchemy regularly enacted by Steve Bocchco and David Milch on Hill Street Blues, and Tom Fontana on Homicide: Life on the Street. In Hill Street Blues, the vice-addicted J.D. LaRue (Kiel Martin) and the decidedly not-by-the-Hill-rules Norm Buntz (Dennis Frantz) subverted both the ethos of the fictional police station and audience expectations. But Trial By Jury lacks the dispassionate, yet tender, eye for human imperfection that spreads an ensemble along the continuum of human experience.

Wolf and company are more comfortable with stable characters, whose predictable reactions might be refined with superb dialogue and subtle plot twists. Of these, Lennie Briscoe became something of a model. Within the confines set by Law & Order, Orbach imbued Briscoe with the sadness of a man who outlived both his child and his own aspirations, yet who remains glad to wake up each morning. No Trial by Jury review could be complete without a tribute to Orbach’s courage and his professionalism, a combination Neuwirth describes in an interview with the New York Times (Jacques Steinberg, “Impact of a ‘Law & Order’ Star Lingers as Spinoff Begins,” 22 February 2005). She recalls him passing time with a prop cane between takes on the Trial by Jury set:

As soon as Jerry saw it, he did a little simple trick where he tapped it with his foot, shot it over his wrist and then landed it in this incredibly dapper position so that he was leaning on it. It was the most elegant and beautiful and charming little vaudeville move I ever saw. I threw my arms out and said, ‘Teach me that.’ And so he did.