Why Are We Fascinated with Legal TV Shows, Books & Movies?

Posted February 9, 2010 in On the Lighter Side by

Law & Order. Perry Mason. Boston Legal. The Practice. Damages.12 Angry Men. The Client. To Kill a Mockingbird. The Firm. A Few Good Men.

Any way you look at it, Americans have a fascination with legal dramas, including books, TV shows and movies. But why? Most lawyers will tell you that fictionalized legal entertainment bears little resemblance to the actual practice of law. If you’ve ever served on a jury, you may have found the experience boring, not thrilling. Yet viewers have been faithfully tuning into Law & Order for 20 seasons, and the show has spawned a handful of spin-offs. John Grisham’s legal fiction becomes instant bestsellers (and most have been made into blockbuster movies, too).

My theory is that people love legal dramas because they enjoy the clash between good versus bad. These dramas often initially portray the good side (those fighting for law and order) as the underdog. If they’ve already committed a crime, the bad side already has the upper hand. And most of us want to see good prevail.

People also love legal stories because it reinforces the stereotypes about the law: It’s an adrenaline-filled job with twists and turns, and critical pieces of evidence that appear at the last minute. But smart lawyers always prevail and save the day for their clients.

If only reality were half as exciting as what’s portrayed in the pages of legal thrillers, and on the large and small screens.

Ironically, the recent showdown between Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien turned out to be its own legal drama on several levels. I think people were rooting for O’Brien because he seemed to be the underdog who was being bullied by big bad NBC and Leno. (Though it’s hard to think of O’Brien as much of a victim, since he reportedly walked away with tens of millions of dollars.) Fans of late night talk shows devoured the gossip reports about contract negotiations between NBC, O’Brien and their lawyers. Many Monday morning quarterbacks expressed surprise that O’Brien’s contract didn’t include details about when The Tonight Show was to air. This omission would have allowed NBC to push The Tonight Show back so it didn’t begin until after midnight each night.

But while many in American were rooting against Leno, fans of legal-entertainment shows had another reason to celebrate his departure from prime time. NBC now has to fill five more hours of evening programming, and you can be certain that at least a couple of those will be filled with some legal or crime dramas. Dick Wolf? David E. Kelley? Time to get busy.

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