Legal Eagles Fly High Through TV Airwaves

New crop of law shows reenergizes one of TV's most popular genres

You can't say there's no justice on television this fall.

Virtually every network has at least one program on the air with judges or lawyers in lead roles, and more are on the way.

New legal dramas like Fox's "Ally McBeal," CBS's "Michael Hayes," and ABC's "The Practice" (which premired last winter) join established series such as CNN's "Burden of Proof," launched in 1995, and NBC's "Law & Order," which just won its first Emmy for best drama and is now in its eighth season.

Both "Ally McBeal" and "The Practice" are set within the walls of a small Boston law firm. Calista Flockhart plays McBeal, a twentysomething New England lawyer whose law office employs her former lover. The quirky drama/comedy, one of the season's hottest new shows, follows McBeal's romantic adventures, which usually involve computer-animated, Walter Mitty-like fantasies.

"Michael Hayes" is a moody, nocturnal drama featuring David Caruso as an ex-cop-turned-prosecutor, while "The Practice" is a high-energy suspense series whose gritty cast members like to keep viewers on the edge of their seats. "The Practice" is so well liked by critics that many television writers bitterly protested ABC's recent decision to move the show to its new Saturday-night slot.

Two reality-based legal series in syndication are also getting a positive verdict: "Judge Judy," now in its second season, and the new version of "The People's Court," with the former New York City mayor, Ed Koch, as justice of the peace.

"Judge Judy" is presided over by Judith Sheindlin, a Brooklyn native who flies out to Los Angeles each week to dispense her "tough judge" brand of justice. Ms. Sheindlin, a family court judge in New York, renders decisions in the style of a no-nonsense mother with little patience for squabbling litigants. It's a style that seems to be working: "Judge Judy" airs on 162 stations nationwide.

The popularity of today's legal eagles on television may be at an all-time high, thanks in part to Court TV, says Laurie Levinson, associate dean at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles and a legal commentator for CBS.

"People got hooked on the O.J. Simpson trial by watching Court TV," she says. "Court TV also proved viewers have a humongous appetite for these courtroom cases. A lot of the new shows that deal with law are playing off that appetite."

Of course, legal intrigue has drawn viewers since the birth of television. In the 1950s, "Famous Jury Trials" and "The Verdict Is Yours" became pioneering shows in the legal genre. In the 1960s, "Perry Mason" had a nine-year run on CBS. In the 1970s, "Owen Marshall, Counselor at Law" aired on ABC as a legal counterpart to the medical melodrama "Marcus Welby, M.D."

If courtroom shows had a golden age, it may have been the 1980s. Shortly after "L.A. Law" premired on NBC in 1986, the series became one of the most consistently top-rated shows on television. At the same time, the avuncular Judge Wapner presided over "The People's Court," a half-hour syndicated program produced in Los Angeles from 1981 to 1993. "The People's Court" was so successful that fierce competition over its broadcast rights broke out in virtually every major television market.

In the show's new incarnation, a hyperactive, wisecracking Judge Koch delivers his verdicts from a television studio-turned-courtroom in New York. Comparing himself with Judge Wapner, Mr. Koch says: "He's California orange juice, and I'm New York seltzer."

The new version of "The People's Court" flashes instant poll results on the screen from viewers who want to weigh in on who should win the case. And then there's the "People's Corner" in midtown Manhattan, where passersby stop to watch the show on a monitor and offer their own commentary to producer and legal anchor Harvey Levin.

Now that this year's television season has begun, new courtroom reality shows for next season are already being shopped around in Hollywood. Mills Lane, a Nevada judge who moonlights as a boxing referee (he refereed the ear-biting Tyson-Holyfield fight in Las Vegas last summer), is discussing his own version of "The People's Court" with several syndicators.

Marcia Clark's "Lady Law," a reality-based series she proposed about female law-enforcement officers, failed to win favor with television executives this year. But when Ms. Clark filled in as host on CNBC's "Rivera Live" last month, viewership soared, beating out competitor Larry King in the ratings.

There may be hope for "Lady Law" yet.

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