I watched the television show Boston Legal last night -- not a bad show as television goes. More interesting to me than one of its plot lines (whether doctors and/or pharmacists in Massachusetts can legally refuse to provide emergency contraception) was that Boston Legal is only one of dozens of law and crime dramas on television these days. At a commercial break, I started a list of present and recent past similar television shows: The Practice, Law and Order (in its seemingly infinite incarnations), NYPD Blue, LA Law, Conviction (coming soon), Homicide, Bones, Crossing Jordan, Judging Amy, Numb3rs, CSI, Forensic File, Court TV, Cold Case Files. I am sure I have missed many many others. (I’d love a more complete list in the comments.)
What does this tell me? Elayne Rapping in her recent book Law and Justice As Seen on TV says that the increase in crime drama shows reflects that “[w]e are living in an age when people are more and more fearful of crime, and we are seeing harsher penalties for criminals … People want vengeance, not rehabilitation." As so many of these shows are about violent crimes and the investigation (and not the due process) that the victims and accused endure, in my cynical moments I agree with Professor Rapping. In my less cynical moments, however, I wonder if the increase in crime and legal drama suggests (is there an increase, or am I just more aware of the shows these days?) a heightened awareness of – perhaps even vicarious participation in – the justice system. To be sure, the genre of the courtroom drama is as old as film, and some of the first successful television serials were of the mystery/crime genre, but can we say that now, in 2006, the United States is producing (and exporting) more legal fictions than ever before – either touting constitutional norms or, indeed, their violation in the name of victim’s rights (as is fairly the case with NYPD Blue or Law and Order: Special Victim’s Unit). Richard Sherwin, in his book When Law Goes Pop bemoans the popular cultural turn in law because, among other things, he thinks it undermines the authority of the legal system as something that stands apart, that promises virtue and blind justice. I have written elsewhere that I disagree with this argument, although I admire Professor Sherwin for making it so forcefully and for courageously forging what has become a thriving interdiscipline of law and popular cultural studies. I disagree becaus I think most people know the difference between television drama and real life drama, between representations of crime and legal process on television and the unfortunate experience of crime and litigation in real life. And as that is the case, the television fantasies are just that, albeit with a very satisfying narrative climax (vengeance and justice). Having a judge or a jury tell you (as the audience qua the protagonist of the show) that you were hurt and should be compensated, that the defendant was wrong and society will punish him, is deeply satisfying. The catharsis is enough to reproduce these shows over and over. But is there more? Is there truly a cultural turn going on that should be accounted for, see Rapping and Sherwin, and if so, what does it mean?