It didn’t get nearly the attention that the first (or even second) season of Serial, but the third season of the Sarah Koenig-hosted podcast may be the best season of a podcast I have ever heard, and if there was any justice in the world it would have been up for a Pulitzer for investigative journalism. Koenig and her team spent a year inside a Cleveland courtroom and covered issues that rarely get any play in the mainstream media, largely about the inequities of the legal system, how plea deals are stacked against defendants, and how people of color are disproportionately affected by a broken judicial system.
All Rise is not based on the third season of Serial, but in the pilot episode, at least, it covers similar terrain, although it is packaged nicely for a CBS network audience. All Rise does not take place in a Cleveland courtroom; it takes place in a Los Angeles courtroom, and for anyone who grew up on legal dramas, All Rise offers something that David E. Kelley and Dick Wolf series never did: A cast predominately made up of people of color.
I loved Boston Legal, The Practice, Ally McBeal, and the OG Law & Order, but it’s also nice to see lawyers and judges in a legal show who look out for defendants — who are, again, disproportionately people of color — not by cheating, but by being honest and fair. By following the law and presuming defendants are innocent until proven guilty and maybe even taking a second look at that plea deal a defendant may have agreed to not because she is guilty, but because the prosecutor pressured her into the agreement and two years in prison in order to spare the system from a trial.
That’s essentially what happens in most courtrooms in America — as Serial explored. It’s not about guilt, innocence, or even justice: It’s about plea deals, conviction rates, and efficiency. Convince an innocent man that he could face 20 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, and it’s much easier to get him to accept a plea deal to avoid a trial for six months behind bars.
That’s the crux of the big case in the pilot for All Rise, which also features an aggrieved white bailiff opening fire in a courtroom in the cold open after he’s dressed down by a black, female lawyer, Lola Carmichael (Simone Missick). The white bailiff is shot by the black bailiff in the courtroom, Luke Watkins (J. Alex Brinson), who is also attending law school. Soon thereafter, that lawyer who dressed down the bailiff is promoted to Judge Lola Carmichael, and instead of deciding how to prosecute cases, she’s now responsible for meting out justice equitably, despite the institutional problems with racism and police corruption that she is up against.
She also has a law clerk, Sherri Kansky (Ruthie Ann Miles), who doesn’t like her; a best friend, Mark Callan (Wilson Bethel), who is a prosecutor; and a veteran boss, Judge Lisa Benner (Marg Helgenberger), who will either be a mentor to Judge Carmichael or someone who will force her to co-exist within the broken system. That remains unclear in the pilot.
I really appreciate what the show is trying to do — and appreciate it even more that it exists on CBS — but it’s a show about taking on the system airing on a system-friendly network. It’s also not particularly well written, and the characters are not all that interesting, at least based on the pilot. It might improve as it finds its footing, but it seems unlikely that it will ever confront our broken system in a meaningful way (in fact, by the end of the pilot, it’s already begun to fall prey to the conservative instincts of a network.). Ultimately, it’s not for me, but I would not object to the older CBS demographic watching a serviceable legal drama in which not every lawyer and judge is white, and not every defendant is a person of color.
Header Image Source: CBS