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One lesson learned from the trials and oral arguments surrounding Bush v. Gore and the related election cases is that our judicial system has a vast potential to entertain and teach. Unfortunately, television producers are forsaking this programming opportunity and instead are rushing to schedule additional “legal” programs of the lowest common denominator — the kind of show that may best be described as the progeny of “People’s Court.” These shows, misidentified as reality-based court shows, have more in common with “Survivor,” “Temptation Island,” and “The Jerry Springer Show.” In the TV world, imitation is not only the sincerest form of flattery, but also among the most lucrative. That’s why, as our nation begins a second go-round of the phenomenally and unexpectedly popular “real-life” drama “Survivor,” it’s not surprising to see network executives doing what they do best to cash in on this latest programming fad — imitate, replicate, and, in the case of the Fox network and “Temptation Island,” offend. And yet, as the networks compete to unveil new reality-based TV shows and reschedule existing ones into better time slots, one of the hottest “new” categories of reality TV turns out to be a veritable Old Faithful of programming: the courtroom drama. Amid more highly touted and sensational shows — for instance, “Sweet Revenge,” where a contestant can get back at a friend or family member by setting him up for an on-camera embarrassment; “The Mole,” where 10 players, including one saboteur, vie to complete physical and psychological tests without being eliminated in order to win a big cash prize; “Destination Mir,” where 12 people will compete to win a trip to the Russian space station; and the new hit “Temptation Island,” where couples go to see if they can withstand the temptation of beautiful people who are attempting to sleep with them — a wealth of law-based reality shows are filling the airwaves of syndication land. Unfortunately, like many of their predecessors, the majority of these new shows are a poor substitute for genuine legal entertainment or commentary. While the people and controversies are indeed real, the format is contrived and the result is little more than a yell- or gossip-fest. THE NEXT GENERATION A world that used to be owned by Judges Judy and Wapner now must be shared with the next generation of “reality” courtroom shows. Among these new shows are “Divorce Court”; “Curtis Court,” with Judge James Curtis (actually not a judge, but a California prosecutor), who supplements the typical small claims cases on these shows with location shots and expert witnesses including Dr. Joyce Brothers; “Moral Court,” a show that uses almost a game show format as people take others to court for being disloyal friends, lazy co-workers, or cheating lovers; and “Power of Attorney,” in which “everyday people have the chance to be represented by A-list lawyers.” The prominence of the courtroom this season — even the “Judge Judy” brand — should come as no surprise to avid TV fans. The law has long been a backdrop for prime-time, fictional, dramatic television programming. Shows like “The Defenders” in the 1960s, “Perry Mason” over the course of three decades, and, of course, “L.A. Law” helped lay the groundwork for hits today like “The Practice,” “Judging Amy,” and “Ally McBeal.” But less well known is that reality-based courtroom programming also has a long history. In the 1950s, for instance, shows like “Traffic Court” and “They Stand Accused” brought a realism and accessibility to a nation still new to television while providing studios with low cost productions. In 1981, Judge Wapner’s “People Court” began a new era in courtroom drama with what would be a 12-year run in syndication. Today, however, like a trial spun out of control, the reality courtroom format has proliferated and mutated. “The People’s Court,” for instance, returned to the air in 1997, with Judge Wapner’s seat filled by none other than former New York City Mayor Ed Koch. He was, in turn, replaced in 1999 by Judge Jerry Sheindlin, who is Judge Judy’s real-life husband. To complete the circle — and confirm the link between entertainment and reality — Judge Jerry was just replaced by Judge Marilyn Milian, who was appointed last year to Miami’s Circuit Court by Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Meanwhile, Judge Wapner was relegated to the farm team, handling the judicial duties on “Animal Court,” on cable’s Animal Planet channel. For viewers more concerned with anatomical intricacies than legal ones, there’s the Playboy Channel’s “Sex Court,” in which Judge Julie takes a close look at some intriguing legal problems from an unusual (and generally nude) perspective. (One recent dispute: “the case of the sexually humiliated husband.”) And that’s just the beginning. The veritable jury of judges on TV today also include Judge Joe Brown, Judge Mills Lane, and Judge Greg Mathis. Each of these “judges” brings his or her own quixotic personality to their shows, but their faux courtrooms share a basic feature: providing a stage (one with a legal imprimatur, of sorts) to two conflicting parties who not only argue their cases, but provide titillating details about their lives at the same time. It is the trash talk show with a modicum more respect — the backing of the law. There’s no mystery behind the preponderance of these shows. Costs are low, and viewership can be high. Consider, for example, that the perpetually crusty and cantankerous Judge Judy regularly tops the softer, more sedate Oprah in the ratings. But economics doesn’t account for the underlying popularity of the programs themselves. It doesn’t explain why, for instance, a profession so routinely derided by the public at large is featured on so many TV shows. And it certainly doesn’t address the implications for our society of this abundance of artificial legal realism. On the most basic level, of course, law at its core provides a good narrative — a story with a beginning, middle, and end, not to mention classic dramatic elements that can be manipulated as needed. It’s no surprise that courtrooms (along with hospitals) figure prominently in most soap operas. Shows like “L.A. Law” and “The Practice,” though addressing real legal issues, are on one level little more than glorified soaps. But this explanation only partially accounts for the appeal of the less refined and less scripted reality courtroom shows, which generally involve only the parties and a judge; there is no opportunity for stories about the machinations of lawyers or their law firms. Indeed, the focus on the accused and accuser is probably a critical ingredient of success for these shows. What is celebrated is not lawyers as much as “the law” — the authority of a judge (or some semblance thereof) who settles disputes, no matter how trivial, while putting those who would question the authority of the law in their place. The differences among the shows (and in general there are few) derive largely from the personality and style of the judges as they work to achieve “justice.” Some play the scolding and often scornful mother (Judge Judy); others the stern father (Judge Curtis); and still others the hip, smooth-talking representative of the people (Judge Mathis, or Judge Mablean Ephriam of “Divorce Court”). One interesting side note: The fictional bench is a much more diverse group, racially and gender-wise, than the real judiciary. THE COMMON TOUCH Viewers apparently appreciate some plain speaking with their justice, like when Judge Judy tells someone to “shut up” or uses her trademark comment, “Gimme a break”; or when Judge Mathis bluntly asks a party, “Are you a pervert?”; or when Judge Mablean thunders at someone who cited asthma as an excuse for his conduct, “We’re in the 21st century here. Didn’t anybody tell you about air conditioning?” Such blunt talk provides elements of rationality and common sense to disputes where stupidity and lack of respect for others and for the mores of society seem to reign. Indeed, the dressing down of parties or miscreants — “We’re going to stand here all day until you figure out how many children you have,” orders Judge Judy — seems to be a relief from the complexities of the actual legal issues we live among, allowing viewers to laugh at and share in criticism of the party’s obtuseness. At least when it concerns the minor disputes featured in these shows, frequently involving unpaid debts of some sort, most viewers seem to be satisfied to see people embarrassed and held accountable in public for their behavior. (Think how much time and money could have been saved under this theory if Bill Gates had to defend Microsoft’s monopoly to Judge Wapner, or Bill Clinton had to explain his actions to Judge Judy, rather than Ken Starr’s secret tribunal.) The shows also serve a purpose similar to that of call-in radio, offering advice and confirming to listeners that they are on firm ground in their own real and potential disputes. Who, after all, can’t relate on some level to the case of a girlfriend who dumped her boyfriend after he bought her $25 boots for a Christmas present and she didn’t buy him anything, a case decided with utmost seriousness recently in Judge Joe Brown’s court. What is particularly ironic and somewhat distressing about these shows is that while they pay only lip service to real courtrooms, much of their success is due to Americans’ abiding faith and trust in the legal system and the belief that the system fulfills our desire to be heard. Americans have generally ranked our judiciary very highly, a fact that holds true even after the bad taste left by the O.J. Simpson criminal verdict, but in fact may change after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Bush v. Gore. But, even as Americans believe in our legal system, they don’t want a lawyer muddling their opportunity to be heard. As University of Pennsylvania law professor Geoffrey Hazard has pointed out, most Americans believe the adversary system actually interferes with that opportunity. In contrast, shows like “Judge Judy” embrace and celebrate it. (This fact may bode ill for at least one of this fall’s new shows, “Power of Attorney,” which features a number of celebrity lawyers coming in to defend real people.) Unfortunately, these reality courtroom shows leave much to be desired, sitting as they do in a twilight zone of legal entertainment. As Edward Rothstein recently wrote in The New York Times about “Survivor”-type shows, “The real is actually the world being left behind; the artificial is the world being created.” It is disappointing that our society needs to both artificially enhance and reduce to the lowest common denominator something as inherently dramatic and substantive as the law. For all of their supposed respect for the law, Americans appear uninterested in watching the real thing. Although the Simpson trial garnered significant ratings for networks like CNN and Court TV, the ratings faded as quickly as O.J.’s return to the golf course. Court TV recently revamped its programming schedule, replacing some of its signature coverage of real trials with reruns of dramatic cop shows like “Homicide.” And it has just announced that it has purchased eight of the “Rockford Files” movies based on the original TV show. It also has tried its hand — with mixed success — at what everyone else now calls reality TV. Last fall the network added “Confessions,” which featured actual segments from confessions of criminals as recorded by police and district attorneys. The show, immediately criticized as voyeuristic and offensive, died a quick death. Although “Confessions” was surely meant to one-up the trash-talk competition, the show, ironically, provided a more faithful depiction than the season’s other new programs of at least one aspect of the legal system — how confession are obtained. It appears that by a series of programming errors, “Confessions” may well have been too real to survive in a TV market ruled by artificial realism. The network has had more success with “Brooklyn North,” a documentary about a homicide squad in New York, which the network billed as a real-life version of ABC’s hit drama “NYPD Blue” in which cameras follow a real New York police lieutenant and his detectives. It would be nice to see the TV courtroom return to the place it once held as an enduring image of justice and to make reality television more real, particularly as it relates to that courtroom. The more probable scenario, however, is less promising. In an era when viewers can hook into Web sites and see people doing virtually anything at any time, the move is likely to be in the other direction. Given the potential of a major strike by Hollywood’s writers and actors, these shows are more desirable to producers because writers and actors needn’t be hired. The disappointing verdict, then: more of the same. Alexander Wohl is a regular contributor to Legal Times . A shorter version of this article appeared in The American Prospect.

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