Why the law rules

Of TV's 25 top-rated shows, a half-dozen or more deal with crime and punishment. What keeps us hooked?

Cops, lawyers, judges, "perps," and guards - the law is everywhere in prime time - both on network and cable television. Shows run the gamut from the bad-guy protagonists on the loose in "The Sopranos" (HBO) to hard-working cops and prosecutors jailing them on "Law & Order" (NBC) to "Oz," the horrifying HBO series that looks at life behind bars.

The law has pervaded TV history (as it has the movies) because "the law is the ultimate American metaphor," says Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University in New York. "This country was always about arguing, negotiating, and often in court - from the compromises of the Constitution on down," Mr. Thompson says. "It makes perfect sense … that our most dominant stories would be about the law."

For many, the law stands for order in the midst of chaos, civilization in the midst of Darwinian brutality, and justice in the midst of selfish privilege. Though there are many miscarriages of justice, and unjust laws have been enacted, at the core of American values is the belief in the possibility of justice for everyone.

But sometimes the law fails: The system can be abused, good people can be destroyed, and bad people can get away with murder or mayhem. Some TV heroes are trying to prove their innocence before the law - take

CBS's "The Fugitive," for example.

"Before the 1980s, cop and lawyer shows were optimistic," says media guru Thompson. "They were essentially morality tales. Either through the apprehension or trial of suspects [or the vindication of the innocent], you'd play out a story of good and evil. In 'Perry Mason,' 'The Defenders,' 'CHiPs,' the order was holding, chaos was under control."

But after the '80s, things changed. "Hill Street Blues" revolutionized TV dramas, and police dramas in particular, Thompson points out. Chaos could win.

Sometimes the TV cops were corrupt or alcoholics or just tired. That trend continues today with excellent shows like "NYPD Blue" (ABC) and "Third Watch" (NBC), which show the very human failings and strengths of the men and women who serve and protect. Unhappy love affairs, a sick child, or the death of a spouse can affect how they do their jobs (all recent motifs on "NYPD Blue"). Confronting constant danger affects their treatment of suspects. And viewers don't really blame them for losing it a little when a criminal, guilty of a heinous crime, acts up.

On the other hand, what shift in American thought has made police brutality, however understandable, all right? Is the sympathy felt toward those who face danger and who struggle with obdurate iniquity really an excuse for viewers to sympathize with the bending or breaking of the law (or a face)?

Howard Varinsky, a trial consultant who has worked on famous cases such as the Timothy McVeigh trial, says that the ideal of presumption of innocence barely exists anymore in real courtrooms. The fact that so few defendants in TV courtroom dramas today are innocent further erodes the principle of the presumption of innocence among viewers.

One reason viewers are seduced into a complicity with lawmakers breaking the law themselves is that these shows are meant to reassure them: TV policemen represent that "thin blue line" that enforces the law and stands between citizens and a tide of evil crime, says Thompson and other experts. "NYPD Blue" and "Law & Order" usually get their bad guys. "Walker, Texas Ranger" (USA Network) always does, and so do the crime-scene investigators of CBS's riveting new series "CSI."

"With 'West Wing' and 'The District,' we see a return to a kind of optimism about the law," Thompson says. The bright young White House attorneys on "West Wing" (NBC) may play hardball politics, but they are also patriots who want what's best (or what they think is best) for the country.

"The District" (CBS) asserts that street crime can be cleaned up - legally, quickly, and without resort to brutality. Both of these excellent dramas are beautifully acted, compassionate, intelligently written, and profoundly involving.

"The attitude toward this kind of presentation has changed radically," Thompson says. "We're at the point where we say, 'Mark Furman is a reality. Monica Lewinsky is a reality. Where do we go from here?' " Both "West Wing" and "The District" are now avant-garde, he says.

"The District" is perhaps the most engaging, refreshing, and reassuring of all the police shows on TV, Thompson says. It is based on the real-life experiences of longtime peace officer Jack Maple, who describes the system by which he has helped police forces clean up their various cities.

"It comes down to four essential principles," says Mr. Maple about his method. "One is to have accurate, timely intelligence that is clearly communicated to all. That is, you have to take the crime every day and map it so everyone in the organization knows exactly where the problems are.

"The second is, after you have things mapped you have to have rapid deployment. [Get the officers where the crime is happening, when it's happening.] The third thing is effective tactics and strategies. The last, most important thing you have to have is relentless follow-up. [Did the officers follow the first three principles, how did they do it, and did the crime rate go down?]"

Every week on "The District," viewers see new ways in which the chief (Craig T. Nelson) enforces these principles, shakes up his department, and reduces crime on the street. Even when he's unsympathetic, his methods appear to work and even when the stress of the job ruins his personal life, he is the kind of hero viewers want on that front line.

While the police on TV are the first line of defense against the evil that men do, lawyers and judges uphold and maintain the law. While good cops and lawyers predominate, sleazy lawyers (most defense attorneys on "Law & Order" will do anything necessary to save their guilty clients) and a few cops on the take can be found on the tube.

In director Sidney Lumet's fascinating new series on A&E, "100 Centre Street" (see interview on page 17), sometimes the lawyers bend or break the law themselves, and the judges don't always make righteous judgements.

In fact, Lumet's point seems to be that even when guided by the best intentions, the law is only human, never blind, and sometimes it makes dreadful mistakes.

Some of these shows court controversy, but the best of them strive for realism and seek advice from real police, lawyers, and judges to get the ambience and the moral right. And many emphasize the struggle and strain the law exacts from its defenders.

Are these shows truly reflective of the way law enforcement works? Mostly, say experts, though some point to inaccuracies in procedures or behavior. (See www.findlaw.com for reviews of TV shows by lawyers.) Filmmakers point out that in the little time they have to tell a story, sometimes they need to take shortcuts.

TV law-and-order shows "are all quite dramatized," says trial consultant Mr. Varinsky. "But they do give people a rudimentary idea of how the law works. "The Practice" [ABC] and "Law & Order" particularly stress some of the [real] issues that arise." But lawyers are much more professional and cool in their relations with each other in court, he says. And there are misconceptions - juries, for example, don't regularly give away more money than is warranted in lawsuits.

In fact, says Anthony Pesare, dean in the school of Justice Studies at Roger Williams University in Bristol, R.I., "In all the trials I've sat through, while there is no perfect prosecution, I've found that given the law they need to apply, juries generally make the right decisions."

Former New York police detective Bill Clark helps keep "NYPD Blue" honest. The executive producer knows how cops think because he used to be one. But he also flies in detectives from New York to ABC studios in Los Angeles to consult on scripts and talk about the cases they've worked.

The show never ignores issues like race and gender: It explores them and it puts them in perspective.

"Everyone has a certain amount of prejudice," Mr. Clark says. "We took it and put it in the action. But it's taken to another level when it affects the job you do…." He adds that policing is basic common sense. Sometimes cops need to adjudicate and pass sentence right on the street. If two brothers get into a fistfight, maybe the best thing to do is separate them and send them home instead of carting them off to jail. We see that kind of common sense often on "NYPD Blue."

The coming ABC comedy "The Job" stars the ever sardonic Denis Leary (it will replace "Spin City" in March for six weeks). The story of a boozy, philandering, obsessive detective, as hilarious as it can get, still strives for verisimilitude, says executive producer Peter Tolan.

Based on the sensibility and real-life experiences of New York cop Mike Charles, who emphasizes the craziness of the criminal mind and the job itself, it rides the razor's edge of extreme behavior. Shows like "Law & Order," "Judging Amy" (CBS), "The Practice," and "Family Law" (CBS) reinforce the idea that juries and judges are fair and perceptive.

"Most judges are fair," trial lawyer Varinsky says. "Though most are cynical, they strive to be fair - no one wants to be overturned."

"Third Watch" is unusual among law shows - its plots turn on the overlapping responsibilities of police, firefighters, and paramedics.

"We want to know how it feels to be in their jobs," says co-executive producer and creator Ed Bernero of his NBC show.

"We've shown ordinary people doing heroic things," says Mr. Bernero, who was, like many other producers in this genre of shows, also once a cop.

And he points out that law enforcement has incredible turnover, that some of these professionals do indeed turn to alcohol or drugs or infidelity. But cops, firefighters, and paramedics process the chills of their jobs differently - they are not cliches, they are all human beings.

In any case, it's not the lawbreakers who fascinate viewers so much about these shows - their motives are simple - greed or revenge or bloodlust. It's the law at work audiences want to watch.

"We fastidiously try to serve procedure," says "Law & Order's" Barry Shindel. "Sometimes because of time or dramatic constraints, we can't. The show is episodic, the stories begin and end in each episode."

Mr. Shindel is a lawyer himself, and he takes his stories from real life.

"Ripped from the headlines is what we're known for," he says. "We are telling stories that touch people's lives."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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