In the world of television, imitation is not simply the sincerest form of flattery; it is among the most lucrative. That's why network executives are doing everything they can to cash in on the reality TV fad. It's also why the hottest new category of reality TV shows turns out to be that old faithful of programming, the courtroom drama.
At least five new law-based reality shows are slated for the fall schedule, the latest progeny of Judge Wapner's famous People's Court, which first aired in 1981, ran 12 years in syndication, returned in 1997 with New York City's former Mayor Ed Koch on the bench handing down wisecracks and off-the-cuff decisions, and is now presided over by Jerry Sheindlin (Judge Judy's husband).
The new shows are as contrived as Survivor, of course. TV viewers raised on daytime Wapner and prime-time courthouse fictions--from The Defenders in the 1960s, through several incarnations of Perry Mason, to L.A. Law and now The Practice, Judging Amy, and Ally McBeal--would expect nothing less. So stay tuned not for genuine legal controversy but for emotional outlet in a legal setting--for a proliferation of trash-talk shows presented in a slightly more respectable manner than Jerry Springer, taking place as they do in what are supposed to pass for courts of law.
Among the new shows are Divorce Court; Moral Court, which, in a game show atmosphere, allows people to take each other to "court" for being disloyal friends, lazy co-workers, or cheating lovers; and Power of Attorney, in which "everyday people have the chance to be represented by A-list lawyers." Among the stranger continuing shows: Judge Wapner's post-retirement gig on the Animal Planet cable channel, where he's been presiding over Animal Court, and Playboy TV's Sex Court, in which "Judge Julie" takes a close look at courtroom testimony re-enacted in the nude for the home audience. In a more predictable vein are Judge Joe Brown, Judge Mills Lane, Judge Mathis, the perennial Judge Judy, and so on, whose faux courtrooms provide a stage for their entertaining personas--scolding mother, stern father, country boy, or street-smart hipster--as well as for titillating details about the lives of the opposing parties who stand before them. (It's interesting that the fictional bench is a much more diverse group, race- and gender-wise, than the real judiciary--possibly because its producers are more attentive to their viewers.)
The basic reasons for the abundance of these shows are clear: Their costs are low and their viewership high. The perpetually crusty and cantankerous Judge Judy regularly tops the softer, more sedate Oprah in the ratings. But why are these programs so popular? In part, no doubt, because the law provides good narratives--stories with beginnings, middles, and ends, not to mention classic dramatic elements like conflict and comeuppance. But this can't fully account for the appeal of reality court shows whose narratives are so much less compelling than those of the more refined and well-scripted prime-time courthouse dramas. Generally the reality shows involve only the parties and a judge, with no opportunity for stories about the machinations, the ethical dilemmas, or even the sex lives of lawyers. Indeed, the focus on accused and accuser, and not on lawyers, is probably a critical ingredient of these shows' success. What they celebrate is "the law" not as process but as authority--the authority of a judge who settles disputes, no matter how trivial, and puts those who question society's rules in their place.
When Judge Judy tells someone to "shut up" or uses her trademark comment, "Gimme a break!"; when Judge Mathis bluntly asks a party, "Are you a pervert?"; when Divorce Court's Judge Mablean thunders at someone who has cited his asthma as an excuse for failing to pay child support: "We in the twenty-first century here! Di'n't anybody tell you 'bout air conditioning!"--viewers apparently appreciate the plain talk, the Harry Truman approach, if you like. Indeed, the dressing down of miscreants--"We're going to stand here all day until you figure out how many children you have," orders Judge Judy--seems to be a relief from the complexities of the actual legal issues we live among. At least when it concerns the minor disputes featured in these shows, frequently involving unpaid debts of some sort, most viewers seem to be satisfied to see people embarrassed and held accountable in public for their behavior. (The public might well prefer the same thing in larger cases, too, and think how much time and money could have been saved if Bill Gates had had to defend Microsoft's monopoly to Judge Wapner, or Bill Clinton to explain his affair to Judge Judy.)
Yet as much as these shows distort how the law really works in America--in place of procedural complexities, they offer street brawling; in place of conflicting interests and principles, they offer the instant gratifications of yelling and winning--their success seems to be due in great part to Americans' abiding faith and trust in our legal system. And that particular unreality is distressing. Studies show that Americans continue to highly value their courts and the fact that ordinary people get a hearing in them, but as University of Pennsylvania Law School professor Geoffrey Hazard has pointed out, most believe the adversary system actually interferes with their opportunity to be heard. They don't want lawyers muddling it (a fact that may bode ill for Power of Attorney and its celebrity lawyers). They want Judge Judy. But when they get her on "reality" TV, how much does it change their expectations of the civil society on which they really depend?
Edward Rothstein recently wrote in The New York Times about Survivor-type shows, "The real is actually the world being left behind; the artificial is the world being created." It is disappointing that the network executives feel the need to both enhance and reduce to the lowest common denominator something as inherently dramatic and substantive as the law. Court TV recently revamped its programming schedule, replacing some of its signature coverage of real trials with reruns of dramatic cop shows like Homicide. It also tried its hand briefly at what everyone else now calls reality TV. The network's controversial Confessions, which featured segments from actual confessions of convicted murderers as recorded by police and district attorneys, was surely meant to one-up the trash-talk competition. Ironically, Confessions was providing a more faithful depiction than the season's other new programs of at least one aspect of the legal system--how confessions are actually obtained. But it died a quick death after public outcry. It appears that by a series of programming errors, Confessions may well have been too real to survive as artificial realism.
When I was in law school, my legal ethics professor regularly brought in episodes of L.A. Law for discussion. The shows were melodramatic, of course, and tended to resolve tricky problems too neatly, but at least they raised real and interesting issues. Oddly, this remains the mandate of TV's fictional courtroom dramas and not its courtroom reality shows. Nowadays this may simply be truth and justice in the American way. ¤