Law and Justice as Seen on TV.
In the 1960s and 1970s, television shows like Perry Mason, Judd for the Defense, and The Defenders featured lawyers as heroes: fighting for the underdog, challenging authority, and championing civil rights. But "this staunch advocate ... has slowly receded from TV screens to be replaced by heroic policemen and D.A.s," while defense attorneys are more often depicted as "sleazy, corrupt, and unscrupulous." And it's not a coincidence--these new shows are "among the most telling markers of our current political times."
>From that starting point, this book is off at a sprint. Elayne Rapping's thesis is that just as politicians and the public are taking a more hard-line approach to criminal justice, their "lock 'em up" attitude--and its attendant disdain for defense lawyers--is reflected in both fiction and nonfiction television shows. She traces changes in the political winds as they affect these shows' themes and characters, charting their progression from an expansive, liberal viewpoint to one that "reflects a more inherently conservative turn."
But the book is more than just political analysis. Lively and engagingly written, it explores, as Rapping writes, "an interplay of aesthetics, politics, and legal history [that] come together in complex and often contradictory ways." Indeed, the author is often at her best when site takes the aesthetic approach; lot instance, her depiction of Law and Order as film noir compares the popular show to "the classic crime dramas of the Golden Age of Hollywood" with its "seedy neighborhoods and bars; the alienated, hostile, suspicious people of the streets"; and its "dark, pessimistic vision." She does a superb job tracking the show's cast changes and how they have reflected its movement to a hardnosed attitude, which was tempered by more compassionate characters in the show's early years.
Similarly, she pokes fun at the "legal melodrama" The Practice--with its lawyers who wallow in moral anguish when they have to defend a client they know is guilty--and its failure "to represent defense law as a morally and politically honorable, even heroic, profession."
The author's dismissal of these fictional lawyers (she notes that in real life, attorneys who behaved like the ones on the show would probably be disbarred) comes from her staunch belief that lawyers must never be ashamed of what they do. She is not a lawyer, but her son is a public defender, and in the book's introduction she explains that his career choice--and other peoples' negative reactions to it--led her to write this book.
Anyone who has watched these shows will appreciate seeing them in a new way. Much of the enjoyment in reading the book comes from Rapping's ability to draw on a wide range of cultural and intellectual interests and present them in down-to-earth language.
In analyzing the popular HBO prison show Oz, she draws equally on Greek and Shakespearean drama, mob movies, and her own moral outrage to condemn the show's "incredibly reactionary subtext" and relentless brutality. Comparing it to older prison fare like Cool Hand Luke ("which fairly reeks ... in its glorification of rebellion against authority") and Birdman of Alcatraz (about "a prisoner whose basic dignity and refusal to conform ... made him heroic"), she notes that in Oz, "what is perhaps 'tragic' is the way the series seems to justify and rationalize, rather than interrogate or expose, the stupidity and inhumanity--not to mention exorbitant expense--of current penal theories and policies." (You'll have to read her footnotes to learn why the show is more popular with liberals than with conservatives.)
The author, whose academic background is in art and media rather than law, covers nonfiction shows with similar insight. She examines in detail the offerings on Court TV and how cameras in the courtroom have shaped public discourse about the law and public attitudes about criminals.
She also looks at television shows like COPS, Crime Stories, and The Oprah Winfrey Show. Even in the latter, she writes, "We can see the gradual shift ... from sympathy and rehabilitation to vengeance and punishment."
Rapping explores television movies, reserving special praise for early-1980s docudramas like The Burning Bed (the story of Francine Hughes, who killed her husband after years of his abuse and was acquitted of murder) and Silent Witness (about a woman raped in a bar, the basis for the movie The Accused). These movies, Rapping says, exposed the social and political institutions that led to violence against women, and the films even showed sympathy for the men. They were "the best that liberal, but still politically limited, commercial media can offer progressive forces," she writes.
Rapping then casts "a rueful eye on the 'weepies' and 'women in danger' movies" featured on the Lifetime channel (billed as "Television for Women") that have replaced them, decrying the newer movies' tendency to portray women as victims and men as monsters.
The author is enjoyably feisty when stating her case. In fact, her most controversial argument is also her most compelling: that the so-called victims' rights movement is a dangerous, vigilante-style trend. She acknowledges up front that her position goes "against the grain of current legal sentiment and policy" and quotes at length from an essay" by writer William Ian Miller defending popular revenge-style films, specifically Clint Eastwood's. But then she states that "popular culture is indeed quite wrong" and promptly sets out to show wily: The victims' rights movement reflects the increasing popularity of programs that "employ the conventions of melodrama to engage viewers and elicit emotion and sympathy and a desire for harsh, vengeful punishment." As examples, she cites America's Most Wanted and the movie Death Wish.
Discussing the victim-impact statements that are now allowed in courtrooms, Rapping wonders, "Is this kind of melodramatic, often hysterical utterance actually appropriate to the adjudication of legal matters?" She later adds, "It is clear to me, having spent many hours studying tapes of victim-impact statements, that there is a cold brutality masked by sentimentality in the rhetoric and displays of grief of many of the spokespersons for victims."
Rapping doesn't back down from this or any other potentially troublesome stance. It's refreshing to read an author who's not afraid to hew unreservedly to a set of beliefs and build a case for them that is both persuasive and elegant. Even when you disagree with her positions--for me, it's her repeated arguments for the Menendez brothers' innocence, which range from the credulous to the seriously nutty--you can't help but enjoy her spirited defenses of them.
This book is engaging, insightful, and occasionally brilliant. After reading it, you'll never watch a cops-and-robbers show the same way again.
CARMEL SILEO is an associate editor of TRIAL.
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 1, 2004|
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