Reviews

The Law Firm

Leigh H. Edwards

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.


The Law Firm

Airtime: Thursdays, 9pm ET
Cast: Roy Black
Network: NBC
Amazon

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" dŽcor 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.

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

This week on our games podcast, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

This week, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

Keep reading... Show less

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

Keep reading... Show less
3

Gabin's Maigret lets everyone else emote, sometimes hysterically, until he vents his own anger in the final revelations.

France's most celebrated home-grown detective character is Georges Simenon's Inspector Jules Maigret, an aging Paris homicide detective who, phlegmatically and unflappably, tracks down murderers to their lairs at the center of the human heart. He's invariably icon-ified as a shadowy figure smoking an eternal pipe, less fancy than Sherlock Holmes' curvy calabash but getting the job done in its laconic, unpretentious, middle-class manner.

Keep reading... Show less
5
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image