Entertainment on Trial: The Rise of the Legal Drama
On September 18th, the 68th Primetime Emmy Awards were held in Los Angeles to celebrate excellence in television this year. Among the winners were familiar faces like Game of Thrones, which won three awards including Outstanding Drama Series, but only one show garnered more than ten nominations, and only one show won five awards, and that was The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.
A product of Glee and American Horror Story creator Ryan Murphy, The People v. O.J. Simpson chronicled one of the most famous trials in history, where Hall of Fame Football star O.J. Simpson faced criminal prosecution for the murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman.
The mini-series starred Cuba Gooding Jr. as Simpson, Sarah Paulson as prosecutor Marcia Clark, Courtney B. Vance as defense attorney Johnny Cochran and David Schwimmer as O.J.’s good friend and the late patriarch of reality TV show royalty Robert Kardashian.
The series was praised for its authenticity, lauded for its performances (including Vance and Paulson who both won Emmys), and captivated social media 22 years after the O.J. trial first froze the nation in morbid curiosity. The People v. O.J. Simpson is more than an insanely entertaining short series; it represents a high point in a genre that has been around since the beginning of TV itself.
The legal-based television show has been a mainstay on network scheduling for almost 60 years, beginning with programs like Perry Mason and The Defenders, both depicting the work of defense lawyers tasked with difficult clients and morally ambiguous issues. The two shows earned 25 Emmy nominations between them. The tone of law shows then shifted significantly in later years, with ‘80s programs like L.A. Law & Night Court that covered important social issues but more often than not employed zany retro sitcom humor to lighten the mood.
The ‘90s brought the introduction to Law & Order, arguably the most famous legal drama in history, which combined gritty crime investigation with the legal process itself. The first iteration of the franchise lasted for nearly twenty years, and spawned five spin-offs, a TV movie, and even various video games.
Despite its long success, Law and Order was criticized for recycled plot lines and diminishing relevance in today’s varied television climate. The last 20 years have also brought the “sexy” legal show to the forefront, which glamourized lawyers as smart, driven, romantic beings with an ability to balance complicated personal lives with endless amounts of challenging case work.
Conveniently, these cases always happened be solved in the last five minutes of each episode. These shows include Ally McBeal and Suits, the latter being the common answer from many 1st year students when asked why they chose to apply to law school.
The advent of online and on-demand viewing has led to many critics believing that society has hit “peak-TV”. By this they mean that at no point in history has there been so much variety, and with it so much technical excellence than there is now on television.
Like TV itself, the legal drama has hit a “peak” in quality. Suits still commands a large viewing on USA Network, while people flocked to FX during The People v. O.J.’s brief run. AMC built on the fanatical following of Breaking Bad with their legal spin-off Better Call Saul, HBO threw their hat in the ring with this summer’s critically lauded The Night Of, and last year Viola Davis became the first black woman to win an Emmy for Lead Actress for her role as a shady Criminal Professor in How to Get Away with Murder.
This lengthy list does not even include documentaries like Making a Murderer, which captivated viewers on Netflix last year. The common trend in these shows is that they offer shocking and dark views of the sordid side of law, including corruption, mental anguish, and more than a few grisly murders.
Because of the almost infinite space now afforded to quality television shows, these programs can push the envelope both thematically and technically, and the expanded world of internet trends and social media championing allows them to gain followings with the click of a button.
Never before has there been so much legal content in front of us on the small screen, and while most of our careers will never be as exciting as the lives lived by these fictional litigators and practitioners, we can pride ourselves that there has never been a more culturally “cool” time to become a lawyer.
Ethan Gordon is the Co-Editor-in-Chief of Juris Diction.