Lawyers, law, living rooms and televisions (Part 1)


By Finchley Atticus

Lawyers in Your Living Room! Law on Television by Michael Asimow is a 2009 book that guides readers through our beloved legal dramas over the decades.  Perry Mason, Law & Order, Ally McBeal, The Practice, Boston Legal, the TV lawyers we grew up with and motivated eager law students to wonder aloud in a criminal law tutorial “What would Jack McCoy/Ally McBeal/Alan Shore do?”. For the current generation of law students, Harvey Specter’s legendary quotes probably receives more insight and attention than that of a corporations law lecturer (with due respect to all corps law academics who are tireless in their efforts to get students interested in the Corporations Act).

I’m a devotee of L.A. Law, Law & Order, Ally McBeal, and The Practice.  It’s trite for well-meaning folk to remind us these shows are fictional, with “fictional” being the operative word. However I’m willing to submit to the bench that The Practice is as close as any TV series will get to a true-life street shop law practice, where not all the good guys win but some of the bad guys do. What caught my attention about Asimow’s book is the title. Not the “Law on Television” bit. It’s the “Lawyers in Your Living Room”, particularly the living room.

I have a theory I’d like to put on the coffee table.  I think there’s a greater probability of connecting with our legal heroes if they are portrayed on TV. Yes, we connect with our cinematic legal heroes, and a bit more about that later.  So why television? The fact Asimow’s book isn’t titled Lawyers in Your Corner Office with Harbourside Views probably provides an inkling. High profile American defence attorneys Mark Geragos and Pat Harris in their book Mistrial, criticise a growing number of prosecutors as “moralistic crime fighters” having grown up watching television shows like Law & Order, such as the outsized role television plays in developing the hubris of some prosecutors.

A few years ago, I saw an interview with US actor Patrick Duffy, forever immortalised as Bobby Ewing in the 80s TV drama Dallas. Duffy was asked why viewers become emotionally invested in TV characters. I thought Duffy was trying to draw a laugh when he believed it’s because the audience watch their favourite stars between their feet. The more I thought about it, the more I realise he has a serious point. It’s in the comfort and safety of our home, predominantly in our lounge room, where we follow the trials and tribulations (no pun intended) of our legal characters, week after week, all encapsulated in an hour-long episode. And we do so relaxed and spread-eagled on our favourite couch (explaining why the viewers in Gogglebox are couch bound), drinks and comfort food in hand, dressed as casually and daggy as we like. We really are ourselves in our lounge.

A person’s home is their sanctuary, a concept embodied in some laws. Tragically there are ways a home, and by extension us, can be threatened. World leaders invade countries. It was only relatively recently that home robberies became termed home invasions (God forbid this doesn’t happen to anyone). Home invasions have high priority in the 6 o’clock news, broadcast across millions of, yes you guessed it, lounge rooms nationwide. We have Australian Consumer Law protections to shoo away intrusive door-to-door salesmen and telemarketers. Sure, maybe more of us have less need for landlines, but there is an underlying and potentially sinister invasion of our sanctuary when a stranger calls, especially when our kids are around. Lawyers who grew up in the 70s can be forgiven by still being chilled by the threatening line “Have you checked the children?” intoned by the murderous home invader over the phone in the 1979 American cinematic thriller When a Stranger Calls, where the innocent babysitter was shockingly warned over the phone by the police to “get out of the house, the call’s coming from inside the house!!”

It’s no coincidence the Australian legal comedy The Castle is called The Castle. A man’s home is his castle after all, and we cheered everyday hero Daryl Kerrigan as he took up the cause against the Government using legal means to take his sanctuary. Pacific Heights, a 1990 US motion picture centred on married homeowners played by Meg Ryan and Matthew Modine, seeking to evict a tenant. The cruel twist being the tenant uses the law to outstay his welcome in the couple’s home. Remarkably, this is reflective of real Californian laws.

Now isn’t it ironic my exhibits to support my theory are all cinematic releases? Maybe, but as children growing up in the 70s and 80s, we were too young to see When a Stranger Calls in the cinema. Which is why we saw it on TV in the safety of our lounge and delightfully imitated the chilling quotes the following day at school. I’d take an educated guess and posit that a large majority of people who saw these motion pictures did so in their lounge room, especially aided by the VHS and then DVD boom.

Sure, TV can’t really replicate the big screen experience but the cinema isn’t our private space. Yes cinemas give us the big screen experience, mass audience participation, popcorn and choc-top ice creams. But in some ways the cinematic experience can be disruptive and intrusive, with some inconsiderate and rude patrons stumbling over our legs, sending texts or even worse phoning during the screening, munching, coughing, sneezing, exposing us to foot odour, and scratching whatever body parts.  And cinemas expect us to fork out $20 for the privilege! At least in our lounge room we can text, talk, munch, cough, sneeze, remove our shoes, and scratch whenever we want thank you very much.

But au contraire, Finchley, what about Atticus Finch, our fictional hero who for many lawyers ranks at the forefront in the cinematic pantheons of lawyers who inspired many a high schooler to enrol in law school to balance the scales of justice. To Kill a Mockingbird was a motion picture, not some cheap network TV series. Good point. I’ve had to give some thought to this. Here is where my lounge room TV theory starts to become metaphorical. To Kill a Mockingbird had its cinematic debut in 1962. Yes since then there have been special anniversary limited runs, but I’d be willing to say that unless you are now old enough to be on the pension, a very large number of law graduates saw To Kill a Mockingbird in high school during a legal studies class if they didn’t watch it in their lounge.

But, Finchley, sorry to point out the obvious but high school isn’t a home. Again, I had to really think about this … when you add up all your hours in a typical week at high school (boarding schools aside), you realise it’s almost equivalent to your total waking hours at home. You probably saw more of your teachers and fellow students than your parents. For better or worse our high school classroom became symbolic or even a proxy of our home and lounge room. High school was the place where we promised to be friends forever, developed crushes, hearts got broken, gossiped, goofed off, laughed, cried and who knows what else. It’s also the place where To Kill a Mockingbird debuted for many aspiring law students. Sure, school isn’t a home but I think we know at least one high schooler who suffered embarrassment by accidentally calling their teacher “Mum” or “Dad”. I don’t know anyone who for a brief moment accidentally called their Mum or Dad the name of their favourite English or Legal Studies teacher.

You can take us away from our lounge but it’s another thing to prise TV from our lounge room. About 25 years ago Sony released the Watchman, one of a line of handheld televisions, with the Watchman name being a pun on Sony’s famous invention the Walkman. A certain generation have fond memories of their Walkman, a hand-held audio cassette player to which we bopped to Cyndi Lauper and partied with Prince like it was 1999. But why weren’t people captivated by the Watchman, which one could cradle in our portable private space to make sure we never missed the latest episode of L.A. Law. Why didn’t many watch the Watchman?  It goes back to the lounge room theory and the intimacy it affords. It’s difficult to recreate that same intimate atmosphere on the bus, train or tram where your private space (for what it is) is interrupted by disruptive and intrusive passengers, some of who will stumble over our legs, munching, coughing, sneezing, exposing us to foot odour, and scratching whatever body parts. Maybe things have changed over 25 years with shows now streamed on demand on our smartphones or tablets, but with that comes the inconsiderate passengers sending texts or yakking on their devices in our private space on the bus train or tram. Still the same, to paraphrase US rocker Bob Seger.

Part 2 continues soon.