Given the fact that, including myself, there are four regular writers at Pajiba who are also lawyers (two of whom actually practice — Seth and The Boozehound), I don’t know why it hadn’t occurred to me before to put together an SRL on the best legal shows. I suspect that, of the four of us, I’m the only one that watches legal dramas with any regularity, but despite the proliferation of them, I still can’t resist a particularly good one.
Unfortunately, good ones are rare. There have been close to 90 legal shows in the history of television that have made it longer than six episodes, not even including those where the law is tangentially related (like Picket Fences or dozens of cop shows). Of those, however, I imagine only 20 or so ever actually made it to a second season, so it’s something of a mystery to me why the networks insist on trotting out two or three new ones each year; for instance, ABC is rolling out “The Deep End” this week for a six-week run, and NBC has greenlit a legal drama starring David Tennant for this fall, or possibly later this spring. I’m not sure why the networks even bother with the gamble: If David E. Kelley or Dick Wolf’s name isn’t attached to it, the odds are stacked against the show. Even then, there really hasn’t been a hugely successful legal drama — or at least one that performed well in that coveted demographic — in nearly a decade, save for “The Good Wife,” which not only skews older, but relies heavily on the “NCIS” lead-in.
I have a few rules when it comes to the quality of the best legal dramas, foremost among them that the show revolve primarily around the cases, and not the lawyers, which basically excuses “L.A. Law” from the list below, as well as “Ally McBeal,” which used cases mostly to advance the show’s character arcs. Similarly, the best legal shows in my opinion concentrate on the legal aspects of a case, and not on fingering someone else for the crime, which also excuses “Perry Mason,” which was a reliably decent show and great for its time, but was really more of a cop show disguised as a legal drama. Perry Mason investigated crimes and used the courtroom to reveal his findings, something that should’ve been done before the trial had even started (granted, most legal dramas engage in this practice from time to time, but not in nearly every episode; “Matlock” was also guilty of this). Finally, while I do like “The Good Wife,” it’s a show that’s far more based in fact than it is in the law — it’s a decent drama, but lacks where the law is concerned.
So with those caveats, here are the Five Best Legal Shows of All Time:
5. “Boston Legal”: Very often in legal dramas, the lawyers appeal primarily to the jury’s emotions, rather than the law. “Boston Legal” was as guilty of that as any other legal show, but it was at least up front about it: It didn’t pretend, in many cases, to rely on the law — it knew that jury nullification was often the best play in any given case (and there was at least one occasion where a judge overturned a jury verdict, as it went against the law, which at least demonstrated what was paramount). There were other cases, also — where Crane, Pool, and Schmidt went against huge corporations, namely big pharm, guns, and tobacco — where the firm at least understood the law was against them, and it was their job to overturn precedent (where they succeeded, I can’t imagine how many of those cases would’ve failed at the appellate level).
But by the time that David E. Kelley got to “Boston Legal,” which was a spin-off of “The Practice,” the most successful courtroom drama television writer of all time had had an arsenal of 25 years or so of cases he’d written for other shows. “Boston Legal,” for the most part, allowed Kelley to recycle many of those cases, apply the current political climate, and use inarguably the best television lawyer of all time, in James Spader, to sell them. Spader’s Alan Shore was an ultra-liberal, sleazy misogynistic deviant, very much a dramatic combination of “Ally McBeal’s” Richard Fish and John Cage. But he could fucking sell a case, almost always appealing to our sense of fairness and the Constitution, in equal measure. William Shatner’s Denny Crane provided the ultra-right wing comedic foil, who always kept the show from getting too serious. “Boston Legal” admittedly wasn’t much of a show without Spader and Shatner (Candice Bergen provided an occasional spark, as did John Larroquette in the final season and a half), but the show was really about James Spader and his keen ability to win a case based on a legal argument, and not on some last minute evidence he received before his side rested (He could kill in a mediation, too).
4. “Law & Order”: This may sound like a prickish thing to say, but truly, you can’t fully appreciate how good “Law and Order” was (at least in its first decade) unless you’ve attended law school. There’s clearly some solid legal consultants behind many of the cases on “L&O,” because like no other legal show, the longest running drama in television history actually uses real case law to prosecute their cases. They cite actual cases, and make real legal arguments, even if at times it doesn’t make for the best human drama (some of those cases are ripped from the headlines in Law Review articles). In fact, if you watch enough “L&O,” you could probably pass a criminal procedure class in law school (that’s how I managed it, anyway) — it’s almost exclusively Fourth Amendment exclusionary law, which is where law and order most often intersect. “Law & Order” has also managed to boast some reliably solid talent over the years, specifically Sam Waterston, Chris Noth, and Jerry Orbach (and anyone who says that Orbach wasn’t the best cop in “L&O” history is a goddamn fool). But the reason the show has been as successful as it has (though I haven’t watched it in years) is because it is completely self-contained. It’s not about the characters, it’s about the cases, which makes it a great show to pick up in either its first or its eighth season — there are no running story lines to keep up with, and if you subscribe to a cable service, you should have no problem finding a “Law and Order” episode any time of the day. Plus, since they’re all so forgettable, you could watch the same episodes repeatedly without realizing it.
3. “Night Court”: OK, fine. This one violates most of my rules, but “Night Court” was just that good. And to be honest, it’s not so far removed from an actual arraignment court room. If you’ve ever challenged a speeding ticket or, you know, sought a protective order from abuse, the sort of characters you’re likely to see in the courtroom weren’t that different from what you saw in “Night Court,” only the real-life petty criminals tend not to be as amusing (save for the time I once saw a man challenge a disturbing the peace fine, which he lost after the judge asked him what song it was he was blaring from his window: ” ‘Fuck Tha Police,’ your honor,” he said confidently.) Moreover, the informality of the “Night Court” proceedings was more or less accurate, and the types of cases that Judge Harry would hear were often inspired by actual cases from the Manhattan night court.
Putting aside the realism of “Night Court,” however, it’s also one of the funniest sitcoms of the ’80s and featured the insanely likable Harry Anderson, the hot-for-the-1980s Markie Post, the spectacular bailiffs — Richard Moll and chain-smoking Selma Diamond — and, of course, John Larroquette (whose presence is coincidentally felt on three of these top five legal shows), who won four Emmys for his depiction of the charmingly sleazy district attorney.
2. “Murder One: I had never even heard of the mid-’90s legal drama “Murder One” until Ranylt Richildis made it a surprising addition to our 20 Best Seasons of the Last 20 Years. After having watched it, however, I can assuredly state that it belongs on that list. “Murder One” was way ahead of its time, I think. Much like “The Wire,” it took one major case and explored it in detail, from arraignment, to discovery, to plea bargains, and finally the trial. It’s an engrossing look at the criminal justice system from all angles, featuring an incredibly strong, novel-esque story that’s anchored by Daniel Benzali and Stanley Tucci (Patricia Clarkson also had a minor role). It is as Ranylt described: “As much a murder mystery as it is a legal drama. It’s a great whodunit, so tangled and manipulative that I’ve forgotten who the killer is twice, now, over the course of my three viewings since the show originally aired. I keep getting waylaid by second guesses and false memory — the mystery is that dense.” And if that’s not enough to convince you, then know this: David Milch (“Deadwood”) was a consultant, and it shows.
1. “The Practice”: Ignoring the latter half of the series, when things began to crumble under the weight of the character development (as they always do in David Kelley’s series), the first three seasons honestly represent the pinnacle of legal dramas on television. “The Practice” had it right, from the financial difficulties of a small law firm to the seedy, often morally questionable choices a lawyer has to make to defend his clients. The people who inhabit the profession may be good and decent, but the profession itself is not. Defending scumbags, murderers, pedophiles, and rapists may be noble in theory — it keeps the legal system’s checks and balances in place — but it’s an opprobrious endeavor. You have to put aside your disdain for your own clients, as well as your own feelings with regard to your client’s guilt, and pull out all the stops the Constitution will allow (and even some that aren’t). Your priority is to the system, even if that priority results in a murderer being released back onto the streets to murder again. Or a drug kingpin who is allowed to go back to peddling his wares. “The Practice” got that. The first few seasons were gritty in every sense of the word, and you found yourself not knowing who to root for: The characters you’d grown to respect, or the just as morally repugnant prosecutors, who were often making the more sympathetic argument. What was even more remarkable — at least until its later seasons — was that the lawyers of “The Practice” didn’t always win their cases, so the reading of the verdict in the final minutes of each episode wasn’t a foregone conclusion, like in nearly every other legal drama in the history of television. Sometimes, the clients were found innocent when you wanted them found guilty, and other times, just the opposite. The cases were riveting, and the performances were not only solid, but came from people who actually looked like they could be attorneys (save for Dylan McDermott), and understood that lawyers were raging hypocrites — it’s the nature of the profession. Moreover, “The Practice” managed to capture the perfect balance between David E. Kelley’s taste for the eccentric and sensationalist, his overriding respect for the legal system, and his ability to create odd but sympathetic characters. For three years — save for “The West Wing” — there was hardly a better drama on network television.