David E. Kelley used to rail against reality television. He argued that it was putting writers out of work and played to viewers' basest instincts. So much for that high road.
Note: Plot spoilers ahead.
The Law Firm is an action-packed reality TV innovation. It's also reprehensible. The series involves real lawyers trying real cases in front of real judges with binding legal consequences. The opening voiceover claims this is "real justice." But for all executive producer David E. Kelley's high-minded pretensions of illuminating the inner workings of the law for us, the program is merely turning the legal system into an entertainment commodity. It's enough to make you want to throw Kelley in the slammer -- even more than Ally McBeal's cutesy postfeminism did.
Instead of anorexic women lawyers and animated dancing babies, this series offers a fleet of 12 smarmy "legal eagles." Roy Black is the managing partner who decides who will survive weekly eliminations to win $250,000 and his imprimatur as the best young attorney of the lot. They're split into teams to try cases like neighbor disputes over dogs, impersonating a police officer, First Amendment issues, false arrest, and wrongful death. In order to build dramatic tension, the stakes of the cases increase as the eight-episode series progresses, and as more and more lawyers are let go.
This is a game in the vein of The Apprentice, down to the boardroom-style firing scenes that end each episode. In Trump's case, if his contestants screw up, somebody might lose face or a little corporate money (easily recouped through the show's advertising). Here, the clients are the potential losers.
The attorneys are already rich peacocks who care more about bragging rights than anything else. While some might be interested in helping their clients, they all behave like adrenaline junkies who never met an argument they didn't want to win at any cost. We spend a lot of time observing their interpersonal tensions as they turn their rhetorical skill on their peers. Of a rival, attorney Keith declares, "I'd rather choke Michael than stab him, because I think it's more personal."
In contrast to such rancor, Black asserts an admirable mission in the first episode. He admonishes the contestants that "the practice of the law and representing clients means we act with commitment and caring" and that they must show "real passion and commitment in representing these clients" or they're gone. But that seriousness is belied by the fact that the game gets the dramatic emphasis, not the case verdict. Each episode builds to the resolution of the trials, then climaxes with the conference room firing. Yes, Black dissects what the lawyers did when he explains who is eliminated. But his teacherly moments are brief and not always coherent, illuminating the legal system's irritating self-referentiality, where justice can get lost under a tangle of words. But that seems incidental. The point here is to win the game.
Nowhere is the trivialization of the trials more evident than when an innocent man loses a case. In Episode Four, plaintiff Edward Thompson sues Kizzy Randle for false arrest. They share joint custody of their six-year-old son, and Thompson went to jail due to an incident in which Randle claimed he tried to strangle her and threatened to kill her. He claims he's innocent and sues her to recover the $5,000 bond he posted to get out of jail. Defense attorney Michael goes in idealistically, saying, "I love that this case is going to be tried in front of a jury because we get to take it to the people, and that's my favorite thing to do."
The case ends up being a textbook example of how easily juries can be fooled. When the defense lawyers have Randle take a lie detector test, she fails it and then admits to them she made the whole thing up because Thompson called child protective services on her. Michael and his team decide to go in to court without a case of their own, only responding briefly to the plaintiff's case. But when one of the plaintiff's lawyers, Keith, makes a serious mistake in his closing argument, referring to something in the woman's original deposition (all lies), Aileen, a defense attorney, pops up to read the deposition in full while not claiming it's true. The jury buys it and finds for the defendant. Because we saw all the case preparations, we know the decision is unjust.
While the losing lawyers feel frustrated about the miscarriage of justice, they quickly return their focus to the game. After the trial, the bewildered plaintiff asks Keith, "Where's the justice?" Keith replies, "I don't know what to tell you. Sometimes juries just ignore the law and do what they want to do." In the conference room elimination later, the attorneys passionately fight with each other about the case and whether Aileen perjured herself.
But the stakes are all wrong. Sure, these lawyers care about the case and the viability of the justice system. But they care about the competition more. They're trying to win a game, and worse, Kelley and company are serving it up as high-stakes entertainment. The clients are occasions for tension and narrative. And we're consumers of commercials and product placements.
The Law Firm is like all those high-profile celebrity cases that tread a fine line between public access to the legal system in action and entertainment. It calls to mind E!'s reenactments during the Michael Jackson trial. As in that macabre display, here a media corporation turns a profit on court proceedings. But this show is worse, making a spectacle of verdicts for non-celebrities. Like in Judge Judy and other daytime judge shows, litigants agree to forgo court for these privately arranged proceedings, which are still binding. But The Law Firm also obfuscates the fact that this isn't a real courtroom. The voiceover repeats that these are "real people, real cases, real lawyers, real justice."
The series also suggests it is set in a "real" court. Establishing shots of the exterior of a columned, courthouse-looking building, and another exterior of the sign for the "Los Angeles Superior Court Stanley Mosk Courthouse" precede the trial scenes. The "courtroom" dcor includes a court reporter, bailiff, judge in robes, a California flag, and sometimes a jury. Only the fine print in the end credits reveals that "Courtroom scenes were filmed at Riverfront Studios and exterior courthouse scenes were filmed at a different location." Those credits also explicate the premise, in legalese: "The cases and litigants are real with the verdicts and/or rulings being final, legally binding and non-appealable. All cases were adjudicated pursuant to procedural rules which the litigants and contestants were informed of in advance and agreed to." We also learn that financial awards for the verdicts are paid by the production company.
The man behind all this snakiness, Kelley, used to rail against reality television. He argued that it was putting writers out of work and played to viewers' basest instincts. So much for that high road. His new show manages to degrade not only his viewers but the justice system as well. I'd prefer the dancing baby to Blind Justice dancing for her supper on reality TV.