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Television loves the American legal system, and we love television’s view of same. We know, on some level, that an assistant district attorney wouldn’t be working just a single case, and wouldn’t work that case in a chic but understated hand-tailored suit and a $300 haircut (with a “casual” $50 salon blow-out), but if the writing is good and a verdict is reached in 44 minutes, it’s fine by us. But this is the Age of Reality TV, and prime-time reality has come to the courtroom. NBC has its “Law and Order: Crime & Punishment,” and tonight sees the premiere of ABC’s “State v. _____” (10 p.m. EDT). “State v. _____” follows five different criminal cases in Arizona’s Superior Court in Maricopa County (which includes the city of Phoenix). Like a standard legal drama, each hourlong episode focuses on a single criminal trial. Unlike fictional TV shows, nothing’s neat and tidy and no one has all the answers. In “State v. MacNab,” the first episode, 22-year-old Guillermo MacNab is facing charges of manslaughter (with a possible penalty of 7 to 21 years if convicted) for the death of his 19-year-old cousin and best friend, Michael Pushga, in a late-night car wreck. MacNab has admitted to having been drinking that night. However, the construction site on the highway where the wreck occurred was poorly marked (another, non-fatal wreck happened there just minutes before MacNab’s), and the victim’s family is convinced that the incident was an accident and doesn’t want MacNab to go to jail. The prosecutor disagrees, and about a year later, the case goes to trial. What makes this show so intriguing is, well, its reality — warts and all. ABC was apparently allowed a great deal of access, because the show does not rely on after-the-fact “talking head” interviews. Instead, we sit down to breakfast at the MacNab house as the family talks over the coming day in court. We hang out with the prosecutor at her home as she tends to her horses and reviews her plans for the case. We sit in on defense strategy sessions. We get nitty-gritty details, like the fact that MacNab’s parents, with whom he lives, have taken out two mortgages on their house to pay the $70,000 it has taken thus far to pay for his hotshot defense lawyer. We overhear a furious, profanity-laced family argument as tempers fray and patience wears thin. We are privy to some great unscripted moments, like the prosecutor’s whispered “Who gives a s–t?” to a colleague in response to a defense statement in court. We are flies on the wall in the jury room as first one jury, then another, hangs in the same case. We see haircuts and seasons change as the case drags on, month after month and hearing after hearing — if any potential lawyer holds the misconception that trials are speedy and quickly resolved, “State v. _____” will take care of that posthaste. And these are not camera-ready people — it’s the real world, not MTV’s “The Real World,” after all — but it’s interesting to see how aware they are of presentation and theater. The prosecutor mocks the defense’s choice to make a grand entrance after the jury is seated (MacNab is in a wheelchair because of the accident); both sides hold the most dramatic evidence till the last; and both sides confide their view of the makeup of the jury, mentally spinning it to their advantage the way we’ve seen it happen a hundred times on other TV courtroom dramas. On the whole, “State v. _____” is balanced but unbeautiful, both sadder and more intense than fiction, and its linear approach to the chaos and tedium of criminal justice is highly educational. Reality TV junkies will want to catch “State v. _____”; aspiring lawyers and law students should make a point of it. Lydia Markoff is a Senior Content Editor at law.com and a somewhat obsessive fan of reality TV.

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