When Amos 'n' Andy debuted on TV in 1951, the portrayal of the fast-talking, unscrupulous lawyer Algonquin J. Calhoun by veteran black actor Johnny Lee wasn't offensive just to blacks. It was an affront to lawyers. After complaints from the NAACP, CBS took the sitcom off the air in 1953, but Calhoun was just the first of many TV characters to make lawyers look bad. Plenty of shows since then have presented lawyers in a more favorable light, and somewhere in between lies reality, according to Nova Southeastern University law professors Robert M. Jarvis and Paul R. Joseph. They coedited the book Prime Time Law: Fictional Television as Legal Narrative, in which eleven shows and five TV genres are examined for their treatment of lawyers and the legal system.
"For many people the only contact they have had with the law is watching L.A. Law or The Practice," says Joseph. "The media has something to do with shaping that view." In fact, lawyers take the issue so seriously that an American Bar Association committee doles out awards to the media. Joseph, who sits on the committee, and Jarvis picked the shows they wanted featured in their book and invited fellow academics to write about them. Joseph himself wrote the chapter on sci-fi law, Jarvis the chapter on sitcom lawyers.
Soon after the Calhoun character appeared on Amos 'n' Andy, Jarvis writes, domestic court justice Bradley Stevens made his debut on I Married Joan in 1952. Stevens (Jim Backus) was married to a zany airline stewardess (Joan Davis), who constantly made her husband look like a buffoon. "While the show's setting offered a marvelous opportunity to tackle any number of serious legal issues, the show's writers... opted instead for pure farce," Jarvis writes.
In the '80s, however, Night Court helped change the face of TV law. "In stark contrast to earlier sitcoms," Jarvis writes, "Night Court managed to remain funny while tackling many problems," including homelessness and racism. Yes, the show depicted Dan Fielding (John Larroquette) as a slimy prosecutor, but the character's redeeming traits provided balance.
"Almost all of the lawyers [on TV] are now more morally ambiguous," says Joseph. "They are fighting hard for clients, so they're not evil, but they're crossing or skirting ethical lines in their private lives."
And that, he says, is fair representation. After all, lawyers are people, too.
-- John Ferri
Robert M. Jarvis and Paul R. Joseph will discuss the book Prime Time Law Wednesday, December 9, at 7:30 p.m. at Barnes & Noble Booksellers, 591 S. University Dr., Plantation. Admission is free. Call 954-723-0489.
TV lawyers get the third degree in Prime Time Law