Given the time and effort associated with practicing law, it’s not uncommon for people to view the profession as tedious and banal. Like any other job, there’s excitement and minutiae, but public view of law has been shaped, at least in part, by the plethora of legal dramas on television. I wrote recently about the popularity of HBO’s The Night Of, but now I’d like to delve a little further into how television has shaped public perception of law—for better or for worse.
Law and Order
Let’s start with one of the big codifiers of the “courtroom drama” genre. It’s fairly straight-laced compared to some of the other examples on this list and is renowned for episodes based either on criminal law case studies or actual cases in the news.
Law and Order is also famous as the progenitor of countless spinoffs, including Law and Order: SVU and Law and Order: Criminal Intent. These shows often opt to take a more personal approach to law, often sacrificing legal details in the process.
Still it’s important to acknowledge the original Law and Order as a fairly well-researched (though brief) look into the manner in which criminal proceedings work.
Suits offers a look at law through the eyes of Michael Ross, the hotshot protégé of one of New York’s most successful lawyers.
Where Law and Order is primarily concerned with the cases themselves, Suits focuses on Mike’s arduous journey into the world of law and the stresses that can come with it. That said, this is certainly not a bad thing, and his development as a character and a lawyer is enjoyable to witness.
Better Call Saul
This may seem like a surprising addition to the list, but Better Call Saul is enjoyable for its surprisingly human moments and realistic looks into the often ponderous justice system.
For instance, one has to laugh when, in the first courtroom scene of the show, evidence is presented on an antiquated television set, which must be slowly dragged across the floor as the judge sits, disengaged from the whole process. This is just one example of how BCS creates a hilariously realistic take on the courtroom drama, often bogged down in minutiae, but filled with people working hard to make the system work.
Frequently cited as one of the major vanguards of the courtroom drama, L.A. Law brings the trials and tribulations of a business to the small screen, following a law firm and featuring a talented ensemble cast.
The show featured fascinating ethical dilemmas, characterizing it as one of the most morally subtle law shows on television, a distinction that I believe it still holds today.
Boston Legal is not David Kelly’s first foray into the legal drama. Ally McBeal, a quirky show about a young lawyer and her relationships, had made an impact earlier. But though it may not be as widely recognized, I believe Boston Legal to be the superior show.
Like Ally McBeal, it’s far from realistic, though it is much more down to earth than its predecessor. That’s not to say, however, that an unrealistic courtroom show can’t make very engaging points on U.S. law and even the very concept of “American ideals.” Add a colorful cast of characters and you have a show with a lot to say about the human condition.
It should be noted that, though many of the shows listed realistically capture elements of a courtroom, they all must be taken with a grain of salt when it comes to the truth of legal proceedings. Shows like these, however, are responsible for elucidating to the public the work that attorneys do and bringing a fascination with criminal law to the mainstream.
At bottom, if people end up learning about something realistic from watching a crime drama – especially how flawed the justice system is and the necessity of good lawyering – that’s all the better.