What do you get when you combine a male transvestite lawyer with a penchant for Oprah Winfrey, a legal wizard with Asperger's Syndrome who purrs intermittently, an aging William Shatner with a propensity to diagnose himself with Mad Cow disease and a young impassioned lawyer who is fueled by vitriol? That would be ABC's wildly successful legal dramedy Boston Legal. Or bring together an arrogant, $12,000-suit-clad corporate lawyer with an associate whose photographic memory and encyclopaedic knowledge are sufficient to land him a job despite his lack of a college degree? That would be USA Network's Suits.
The televised courtroom drama is the fodder of the masses. We love nothing more than scheming attorneys, lots of homicide, quests for justice, and beating the system. Add to that, oodles of casual incestuous sex amongst lawyers and judges, some inordinately gorgeous women (read: Rhona Mitra from Boston Legal), lots of Scotch whiskey and some more homicide and people just can't get enough. We are hungry for justice and we want it in prime time.
There's a curious dichotomy at the very core of this phenomenon. The exacerbation of mistrust in the judicial system and the figure of the lawyer have only further swelled what best-selling author John Grisham described as our "insatiable appetite" for all things legal. As someone who has succumbed to said insatiable appetite, this article is as much about introspection as it is about attempting to analyze the curious reality of our cultural preoccupations.
Let's get one thing straight, we love the telly. It's arguably the most culturally dominant facet of our lives. Jeff Greenfield, the television historian, called it "our marketplace, our political forum, our playground, and our school." In the first three months of 2010, British TV viewers spent more than an average of four hours a day glued to what my father affectionately calls the "idiot box." But why do we love the courtroom drama?
Well, there's the colossal tension of it all. The stakes are high, it's always a matter of life and death, the attorney is always mired in a moral conundrum, and the witness is always breaking down under steely cross examination and somehow the good guys generally win. Moreover, legal dramas have been successful in giving enthralled audiences exactly what they want: comforting mythologies. We definitely want drama; we just might be able to accept a dip in fortunes followed by an ominous "To Be Continued." But at the end of it all, we need justice to be served. Essentially, the lawyer represents that elusive power that we all seek in our own lives: the power to control the narrative. Even as we vilify him, we wish we could prance around the courtroom of our lives, manipulating and scheming, yet ultimately triumphing.
Popular culture is replete with images of the lawyer as the greedy, corrupt archetype of capitalist society with a fondness for Johnnie Walker and Cuban cigars. And sitting in the safety of our living room couches, we want drama that titillates. We want television that blurs the line between morality and immorality. The fact is that the audience is a living projection of that easily pliable jury that falls prey to emotion and cannot help but believe the Alan Shores and Harvey Specters (Gabriel Macht's character on Suits) of this world.
There is a sense that the American courtroom drama has the effect of what culture studies theorists would call "naturalizing the text." Very simply, our notions of the legal system are unconsciously being dictated by the antics of Mr. Shore and Mr. Specter. The televised courtroom trial forwards "meaning" and this meaning is accepted without any critical reflection.
An example of this is the well-documented "CSI effect" which suggests that juries that are bombarded with prime-time television will place undue levels of expectation on prosecutors. If you haven't dusted just about everything for fingerprints, you'll be seen as a terrible detective. And if you can't eke $225,000 as damages from a casino because they were "responsible" for you losing all your money, you're a crappy lawyer. (True story: Boston Legal, "Trial of the Century")
Whether or not the CSI effect or the pollution of the jury pool is something you believe is a result of courtroom drama, one cannot deny that from the seminal moment in 1957 when the first episode of Perry Mason was aired, we have all been hooked.
The courtroom is no doubt a space of tension and conflict, and it is by elevating this tension and conflict that writers and directors have managed to captivate audiences for the last 50 years. There are departures and alternatives, but what remains is a simple basic formula: suits, cigars and scotch. If you've got those three, you've got me.