Unlawful Entry

Ask the average TV writer what word he associates with "evil" and the answer is likely not to be "Milosevic" or "Enron" but "private law firm." TV writers don't really know what goes on in the plush offices of big firms, but they know it's bad. No less a cultural indicator than acclaimed scriptwriter Joss Whedon, seeking the focus of evil in Los Angeles for his heroic-vampire drama Angel, created a megafirm called Wolfram and Hart, with lawyers so vicious that their clients -- werewolves, demons and assorted soul-stealers -- were afraid to be alone with them.

So it's no surprise that something is really, really rotten in the venerable Washington firm of Lyon, LaCrosse and Levine, the fictional setting for NBC's new Sunday-night drama, The Lyon's Den. Managing partner Dan Barrington, a former ethics professor at Yale Law School, has committed suicide after the securities-fraud indictment of a major client. Now senior partner Terrence Christianson (James Pickens Jr.) needs a new managing partner to put an ethical happy face on the firm while he covers up the skullduggery that led to Barrington's suicide -- if that's what it was.

Who better than Jack Turner (who seems to be played by The West Wing's Sam Seaborn, played in turn by Rob Lowe), two-time winner of a humanitarian award, former editor in chief of The Yale Law Journal, former clerk to Supreme Court Justice David Souter -- and, by coincidence, the son of H.M. Turner (Rip Torn), former senior partner, current senator and villain of the deepest dye? Christianson believes that the idealistic Turner will be a perfect patsy for his cover-up -- and, if necessary down the road, an ideal fall guy.

Sound familiar? It should -- not so much because it is Hamlet (without that whole icky existential-angst thing) as because it is almost precisely the plot premise of last season's forgettable NBC drama Mr. Sterling, in which the designated patsy was a novice senator.

Like the scheming governor who appointed Bill Sterling, however, Christianson has underestimated his pawn. Jack has been working at the firm's inner-city legal-aid clinic, where he and his partner, George Riley (Matt Craven), have learned street smarts. (For example, George takes only 40 minutes to realize that an incriminating DNA test result could actually point the finger of suspicion at their client's twin brother, then concocts the oh-so-original strategy of tricking the brother, the real killer, into confessing into a hidden tape recorder.)

The Lyon's Den has a better developed plot than Mr. Sterling, though it's not entirely clear that's a good thing. Dan Barrington was clearly murdered, and probably by senior partner Christianson (who must be evil -- he shambles through his part as if he had stayed too long at the all-you-can-swallow Thorazine bar). The killer or killers are being limply pursued by D.C. Police Detective Nick Traub (Robert Picardo, best known for his role as the opera-singing emergency medical hologram on Star Trek: Voyager). This cop is more Willie Loman than Lennie Briscoe, though, and by the end of the first episode, he still hasn't managed to get anyone at the firm to answer a single question.

Then there are Jack's other enemies, the Boris-and-Natasha team of scheming partner Grant Rushton (Kyle Chandler) and his secretary-cum-apparent-dominatrix Brit Hanley (Frances Fisher). These two, with their Virginia Woolf repartee and constant figurative moustache-twirling, are fun to watch: They seem to have wandered in from a Dynasty rerun. Their relationship, if that is the term, promises some amusement during the dark times ahead.

Even more amusing, alas, is the show's take on law and lawyers. Whatever its flaws, Mr. Sterling was at least written by someone who knew the territory, former Senate staffer Lawrence O'Donnell Jr. The Lyon's Den is the creation of Remi Aubuchon, a former writer on the FOX series 24.

Aubuchon knows lawyers use Latin, but beyond that, the law is Greek to him. One exchange, between H.M. and Jack, made me laugh so hard that I had to watch it again on videotape to be sure it was as bad as it seemed:

H.M.: I assume you're countering with an ex parte petition for a writ
of habeas corpus for the emergency hearing.

Jack: No, I don't have time for a writ of certiorari or supersedeas.

H.M.: But ultimately the argument for asylum will lose, given stare decisis.

Take it from a law prof, this doesn't rise to the level of gibberish -- especially when Lowe's character (supposedly a former Supreme Court clerk, remember?) can't even pronounce "certiorari." The effect on the suspension of disbelief is devastating -- it's as if the plucky docs of ER, faced with a fractured tibia, were to begin singing, "Hipbone's connected to the thigh bone."

There's really no excuse for this kind of sloppiness. Every third barista in Hollywood is a lawyer, and vice versa -- someone could be hired cheap to vet this stuff. But legal vetting is not the only thing the script needs. It is a mark of how poorly written most TV-drama scripts are that some critics are already citing The Lyon's Den as one of the better-written new shows of the fall. But Shakespeare it's not. I am not sure that Aubuchon crams every possible cliché into the pilot, but I can vouch for these gems: "I have zero interest in politics"; "Are you threatening me?"; "Some would say that 'ethics in law' is an oxymoron"; and "Watch your back," says one character, as another adds, "And front."

All in all, the portents for The Lyon's Den (which must compete in its Sunday-night time slot against David E. Kelley's downsized The Practice) are grim. It's a wasted opportunity all around. To begin with, much of the cast could handle better material -- particularly the ever-appealing Elizabeth Mitchell as Ariel Saxon, a fragile senior associate dealing with a deadly cocktail of addiction, sexual harassment and self-loathing.

And beyond that, anyone who has ever spent time around real law firms knows that the material is there for fascinating drama. A law firm can resemble a bizarre kind of group marriage, in which years of hurt feelings, thwarted ambition and unspoken history provide an almost unbearable level of subtext to the most mundane transactions. Lawyers learn almost nothing in law school about how to run organizations, motivate subordinates or set collective goals. The resulting milieu is often a cross between Louis Auchincloss and Lord of the Flies -- not one in which senior partners are hurled off buildings but one that produces a near-hysterical level of pain and conflict over who cleans up the break room or plays on the softball team. Add into the mix the constant influx of new young lawyers -- truly brilliant and promising graduates of American law schools -- who are routinely exploited, embittered and cast aside within a few years. The entire enterprise is like a gigantic factory in which, to paraphrase Arthur Koestler, the workers use gold watches to drive nails.

I see no reason why Lowe and company would not be able to wring great drama from this setting -- and I really don't mind if the writers jazz up the story a little with hokey murder plots and strange, scheming characters. But to make it work in the long run, they will have to find out something about the world they are portraying. It isn't really that hard; you don't even need to know Latin.

Garrett Epps is professor of law at the University of Oregon.

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