TV Justice Has Changed

Raymond Burr as Perry Mason
Stuck in the middle of all the commercials during the Winter Olympics was a promo they repeated many times for a new show called "Conviction." The ad showed young lawyers who, presumably, have conviction.

At first I was surprised and pleased by the commercials because I thought finally we were going to get a lawyer show that wasn't from the point of view of the prosecution, that wasn't about nailing the "bad guy" no matter what. These freshly scrubbed young lawyers with conviction obviously would work hard to make sure justice was served. They would help the downtrodden and the unjustly accused.

But I was wrong. "Conviction" in this case, is a pun and also refers to the fact that these young lawyers are assistant district attorneys determined to get a conviction.

A show like this couldn't have existed in the '60s or '70s. It would have been a laughable premise, worthy of mocking in "Mad" magazine. Back then, young, idealistic lawyers worked hard to have their innocent clients set free. These lawyers didn't care about expensive suits or partnerships. They wanted to make sure that innocent people weren't taken advantage of by the more powerful establishment. Working for "the man" would be a sign of selling out, not a goal for young people. (Donald Trump's "The Apprentice" would not be a hit back then unless it was about how the apprentice could infiltrate Trump's organization to make sure all his employees were treated fairly.)

Today, the young lawyers on TV have been co-opted by the establishment, and historically that is a strange thing. Aren't young people supposed to rebel, question authority, and be idealistic?

A long time ago, there were such shows as "The Defenders," "Judd for the Defense," "Perry Mason," and even one called "The Young Lawyers" in which the main job of the lawyers was to see that justice was served. Defense lawyers weren't bad guys who got in the way of law and order by bringing up the civil rights of their clients. The bad guys were often part of an unscrupulous establishment who didn't care how they got a conviction as long as they got it. Today, those "I don't care how we get a conviction" people are the good guys.

So, the pendulum has swung, and it appears to be stuck. Part of the success of these shows is that we live in a law-and-order era. Imprisoning bad guys without charging them is OK, as long as we "know" they're guilty of something. Illegal wiretapping is OK as long as it might help keep us safe. The old maxim in law is that we'd rather set a thousand guilty men free than imprison one innocent man. Now, it seems that we'd rather imprison a thousand innocent men rather than set one guilty man free.

Despite crime rates going down, we're somehow meant to feel afraid. The government perpetuates this milieu of fear, but so do all the TV programs that show how the world is filled with evil people ready to pounce on the innocent in unimaginably disgusting ways. In fact, these programs show the most perverse crimes perpetrated by the worst imaginable people. So, it becomes easier to rationalize throwing the "dirtbags" in jail even if their rights get stepped on a little.

Recently, ABC introduced a new show (also with a pun for its title) called "In Justice." A promo for this show says that it "offers a completely new take to the procedural drama: rather than merely catching the bad guys, this group of young lawyers and investigators catch the bad guys and frees the good!" It's so "completely new," it sounds as if it could have been on TV 40 years ago. So far, the show hasn't been a ratings smash, but if it does succeed, you know every network will start copying it and putting on shows about innocent people, wrongly accused.

And that might mean there will be more of a variety of storylines on TV. That's got to be a good thing. This glut of snarling cops and prosecutors who don't care how they toss the "perp" into jail has to run its course soon, doesn't it? So, the next time someone at one of the networks suggests another show like "CSI Dubuque" or "Law & Order Decapitated Victims Unit," I hope some people in the room will raise their hands and say, "Let's not do the same old thing. Why don't we do a show about defense lawyers who are good guys?" And I trust whoever makes that suggestion won't be looking for another job by the end of the day. But if they are, I hope they get a good lawyer.

Lloyd Garver writes a weekly column for He has written for many television shows, ranging from "Sesame Street" to "Family Ties" to "Frasier," but no lawyer shows. He has also read many books, some of them in hardcover.

By Lloyd Garver