Trial by Tribulation

The rotten new Law & Order spinoff.

Sham Trial

My husband and I have a running joke, born the day the second Law & Order spinoff, Criminal Intent, first aired: We’ll stop watching Law & Order spinoffs the day the screen goes dark and we hear the guy intone, “In the criminal justice system, there are people who dredge up slimy hair clogs from the sinks of police stations. These are their stories. Ka-chink.”

Well, Law & Order: Trial by Jury, NBC’s latest entry in the seemingly endless stream of L & O mini-me’s, may just be that show.

The premise behind Trial by Jury,which airs Fridays at 10 p.m. ET, is a sound one, at least in theory. After years of showing us only the investigation and prosecution of crimes “ripped from the headlines,” this was to be the Law & Order industrial complex’s moment to show us all sides of the story: We’d meet sympathetic defense attorneys, three-dimensional defendants, judges, and jurors, and thus get a more complete picture of how the trial process works. The only flaw in this plan: Dick Wolf, writer, creator, and mayor of Law & Orderville, has become so brainwashed by his years’ worth of evil villains and yet-more-evil defense attorneys, that he uses Trial by Jury merely to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that there is no such thing as an innocent defendant or an honest defense lawyer. Instead of just hinting that all criminals are loathsome pond slime, Wolf chooses to have them open their mouths and remove all doubt.

A fairly typical attorney-client interaction takes place in the second episode, which aired last Friday, when Peter Coyote induces his lowlife cop-killer client to marry the mother of his child, with the promise of millions from a bogus police brutality suit. “Why don’t I just kill another cop?” grunts the spawn-of-Satan defendant. “Don’t ever say that, even to me,” snarls spawn-of-Lucifer Coyote. By breastfeeding his viewers with instant answers to “whodunit” (the defendant) and “why” (because he’s evil) the only tension left to the show is, “How low will the defense lawyer sink?”

Compelling stuff. For at least six minutes.

What’s strange is that Law & Order spinoffs are usually comprised of ensembles of mostly unknown actors, yet the cast of Trial by Jury couldn’t be more famous. Not only were the first two episodes blessed with the presence of a strangely tanned Jerry Orbach—a 12-year veteran of the originalbut the series rotates in phenomenal actors to play judges and defense attorneys. As each plays a venal, heartless snake, even phenomenal acting starts to just give you a headache.

The other too-cynical strain in Trial by Jury is its obsession with media manipulation and politics. Former U.S. Sen. Fred Dalton Thompson manages to separate his real-life job from his make-believe one as New York District Attorney Arthur Branch in the original Law & Order. But no episode of Trial by Jury seems complete without a reminder from him to his minions that they’d better score a huge conviction—warranted or not—because he’s up for re-election. Craven opportunists on both sides work the media relentlessly: “Call Dominick Dunne!” someone hollers during the premiere, seducing Dunne into profiling the case for Vanity Fair. Never mind Dunne. Someone call Franz Kafka. These “trials” are so mired in spin, greed, and personal ambition that the courtroom scenes become almost immaterial. It all feels so ‘80s—depressingly Knots Landing-meets-Bonfire of the Vanities.

It’s probably a coincidence that the first legal show featuring almost universally unlikable attorneys is also the first legal show that features almost universally female attorneys. Trial by Jury scuttles the Law & Order casting formula (grizzled veteran cop/foxy male cop plus grizzled veteran prosecutor/foxy supermodel assistant prosecutor) to bring you a gaggle of cynical female defense attorneys, judges, prosecutors, and assistants. The show stars Cheers veteran Bebe Neuwirth as Assistant District Attorney Tracey Kibre (“Let’s get someone bitter and emasculating. Like Lillith.” “I know! Let’s just get Lillith!“). Amy Carlson plays bored ADA Kelly Gaffney, and in last week’s premiere, Annabella Sciorra was a defense attorney who nodded serenely as her client described strangling his pregnant girlfriend and chucking her down a well.

Female judges, including Candice Bergen *, sit around reminiscing about their brushes with sexual harassment—heh heh—and the dialogue flying between the female prosecutor and defense attorney (over facials, of course) includes such catty garbage as: “Ahhh, the voice that launched a thousand appeals,” and “Necessity is the mother of conviction.” I counted the word “bitch” or “bitches” six times in the hourlong premiere. I’ve heard rap albums that are more respectful of women.

Yes, I’ve been spoiled rotten by the soft-spoken genius of Michael Moriarty in the first four seasons of Law & Order and by the controlled intensity of Sam Waterston in the seasons since, but why fall back into clichés of bitter ‘80s ballbusters?

To sum up, ladies and gentlemen, Trial by Jury is lacking in suspense, lacking in nuance, and lacking—dramatic pause—in anything resembling justice or redemption. (As an aside, it’s also lacking in the jurors promised in the title—beyond an obligatory shot in both episodes wherein a crowd of Bruegel-faced malcontents browbeat the misguided holdout to vote with them.) But what—or should I say who—really killed Trial by Jury? The same money-grubbing, media-obsessed, win-at-all-costs ethos that poisons all the characters and plots of this new series: the same impulse, in short, that caused Dick Wolf to launch the show in the first place.  

Correction, March 12, 2005: This piece originally had Candice Bergen’s name misspelled. (Return to correct sentence.)