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Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Crossing the bar

Confession. I violated my own pledge never to watch a TV crime / lawyer show. I saw the first episode of a series produced by Stephen Bochco called "Raising The Bar," which was touted as being about a public defender in New York City.

The creator is David Feige, billed as a "former New York public defender" who wrote a book called "Indefensible" about his experiences. Feige is a founder of a laudible New York defender program called "Bronx Defenders," which pioneered a holistic approach to indigent criminal practice, including social workers and a team of experts supporting the lawyers. They claim legal breakthroughs, including cases that reformed New York's law regarding suggestive identifications.

The show he and Bochco created contains no more than caricatures of the denizens of NY criminal practice and flimsy sketches of the kind of cases and issues that arise there. It is mostly about sex and sensation, over-the-top drama, and appeal to audience demographics.

One of the characters is a public defender. His name is Jerry Kellerman (played by Mark-Paul Gosselaar). Kellerman looks like some PD’s I’ve known. With shoulder length hair, shirt out and intense scowl, he looks and acts the way people think PD’s should look and act. He whines about "injustice" to the DA, his superiors, his client, and especially to the judge.

In this first episode, he ultimately "wins" his case, but only after an hour of struggle. The win comes despite his ineffectual ranting which is reminiscent of Al Pacino’s conduct in the classic, "And Justice For All" (1979) in which a lawyer assigned to defend a despicable judge charged with sexual assault, comes unglued, screaming, "This whole system is out of order!"

Kellerman's client, wrongfully accused of rape, misidentified in a highly suggestive one-photo show up, is offered a plea bargain to a second count of possession of a Swiss Army knife with intent to do harm, which (apparently in New York) carries up to seven years in prison. Kellerman advises his tearful client to take the deal, but the judge, a woman who appears to be a sarcastic, vindictive "power junkie," refuses to accept the deal and forces a trial, over the objections of the DA, who points out the weakness of her case.

The D.A., "Michelle Ernhardt," (played by Melissa Sagemiller) is depicted as an ethical, smart hottie who wants to dump the case because of her doubts about guilt. Her superior, a sexist buffoon whose harrassment bluff she calls by sitting on his lap in his office, insists that she go forward because the accused must have done other crimes.

Ernhardt supports the plea bargain but when the judge refuses it and orders her to trial, she complies and argues strenuously for guilt. After the jury acquits on the rape, but convicts on the knife possession charge, the judge insists on a prison sentence and high bail on appeal. The PD whines about the ruling, accuses the judge of every fault but bribery, and winds up in jail with his client.

Ultimately, both are freed despite the defense lawyers incompetent petulance, but because of interventions --- from his superior (played by Gloria Rubens, who used to be on "ER"), the judge’s clerk / lover who is secretly gay (don’t ask!), another DA who happens to find the real rapist, and form Michelle, who pleads to her boss and then to the judge to do the right thing and then at the end is revealed to be sleeping with Kellerman – who is still pissed off at "the system."

My overall impression is that this series is about as "realistic" a depiction of the justice system as Hollywood can manage in a televised basic cable series. I do wonder whether it will inspire some in the audience to service as the 1950's classic series, "The Defenders," once did. I think it more likely that it will inspire young lawyers to grow out their hair, loosen their ties, keep their shirts out, and hit on some hot D.A.’s.