Between Law and Justice

In a modest hotel room, Bobby
Esposito and Cynthia Bennington, two young assistant district attorneys, have
just made love for the first time. For the high-toned Bennington, the occasion is
a breakthrough. "I've never had an orgasm before," she tells Esposito. He's
pleased, but his mind is elsewhere. He's worried about inequities in the system.

"I've always been aware that there's a difference between the law and
justice," he says. "You know, it's not anybody's fault. There's no heavies here.
They can be very different, very far apart, and I'm hoping somewhere in my life
to bring the two closer together."

The chasm between justice and the American
justice system has emerged as the chief theme of 100 Centre Street, the
new A&E series created by veteran film director Sidney Lumet. This has long been
one of Lumet's preoccupations. His protagonists, idealists who start out fighting
corruption, often end up enveloped or defeated by it. In the early episodes of
100 Centre Street--which will be rerun starting April 9--we encounter
Esposito, played by a magnetic young actor named Joseph Lyle Taylor, near the
beginning of the familiar Lumet trajectory: something of an innocent, still
unsure who the enemy is.

Will his awakening be as painful as Frank Serpico's?
It seems unlikely. Lumet's powerfully grim vision is already being diffused by
the demands of series television, like the need for tidy hourly resolutions. The
convention of spotlighting different members of the series' cast in each episode
has also made for some disconcerting shifts in focus. Lumet himself wrote,
directed, and produced the stellar two-hour premiere, but it hasn't helped that
most of the episodes since have been the work of different writers and directors.

From NYPD Blue to Law and Order, other television
law-enforcement dramas tend to celebrate the American criminal justice system,
and especially the cops and prosecutors who lock up criminals. Set in Manhattan
night court, 100 Centre Street has begun by adopting a more skeptical
stance, even hinting at the argument of critical legal studies--that America's
racial, class, and gender inequities are so embedded in the law that only a
radical overhaul of the system can make it fair.

Lumet first won recognition
as a director in the 1950s for his live television dramas, and 100 Centre
's use of high-definition video technology--a more naturalistic medium
than film--harks back to that era. The show is a throwback in other ways too: It
eschews the mannered handheld camerawork of NYPD Blue and Homicide:
Life on the Streets,
as well as Blue's distinctive, at times almost
undecipherable cop-speak. Centre Street's opening credits, accompanied by
bluesy theme music, also have an old-fashioned feel.

In Lumet's urban
landscape, cops tend to be dirty, prosecutors racist, outcomes rigged. Money,
power, ethnic solidarity, and racial prejudice breed corruption. Any man--and
Lumet's heroes invariably have been men--who tries to wend his way through this
maze finds his job, his life, and, above all, his character on the line, with
results that range from triumphant to catastrophic.

In 12 Angry Men,
Lumet's first feature film, a juror played by the ramrod-straight Henry Fonda is
able to persuade his fellow jurors not to railroad an innocent man. In The
Paul Newman as a washed-up, alcoholic attorney overcomes a
double-crossing girlfriend and a corrupt judge to find both justice and personal
redemption. Still, he ends up alone, without the girl.

Lumet's vision is
darker in his New York criminal justice trilogy, Serpico, Prince of the
and Q&A. In each film, a flawed man strives for the mantle of
heroism in a fallen world--and is betrayed, embittered, and driven into cynicism
or retreat. Witness Frank Serpico, raging and alone, then nearly murdered when
his fellow cops fail to come to his aid. Or Danny Ciello, the cop who wears a
wire in Prince of the City and is forced finally to rat out his best
friends. Al Reilly, the young assistant district attorney in Q&A, is left
after a prosecutorial cover-up with nowhere to go but a deserted island, where
the woman he loves greets him in noncommittal silence.

In 100 Centre
the system and its representatives remain deeply flawed. Right and
wrong, left and right are not always easily distinguishable. Esposito, succumbing
to family pressure, erases a conviction from court records to help his junkie
brother Frank. Frank turns him in--with results that are still unfolding.

Judge Joseph Rifkind (the redoubtable Alan Arkin), an ex-cop with a wry sense
of humor, cements his moniker of "Let 'em Go Joe" by releasing a young hood who
goes on to murder a rookie police officer. Rifkind's blunder--a result of both
his own compassion and the revolving-door nature of the system--is made even more
painful by the fact that the victim is the daughter of his onetime partner.

After the murder, one of Rifkind's few backers is his friend and ideological
opponent, Judge Attallah "Queenie" Sims, an African-American woman who is
fearless and tough on crime. But Sims's toughness is no more proof against
disaster than Rifkind's leniency. Thanks in part to a defense counsel's
incompetence, Sims sets unusually high bail for a first-time offender accused in
a robbery and assault at a convenience store. In prison awaiting trial, the
teenager is killed by far more vicious thugs.

Such plot developments can be
all too predictable. But at its best, 100 Centre Street keeps us off
balance, forcing us to examine our own assumptions about the way things work and
the complexity of moral choices. After all, if the system is inherently unfair or
even corrupt, how critical is it that we obey the law? In Bobby Esposito's
position, obliged to decide whether to adhere to its tenets or give a brother a
chance at rehabilitation, which would we choose?

That the system can grind
down even those it is designed to help is the point of an episode about Amanda
Davis, a young black woman who is bipolar and homeless. Bennington, the Waspy
prosecutor, takes Davis, the daughter of her former housekeeper, under her wing.
But Bennington's attempts to escort her childhood friend through the obstacle
course of the New York City welfare system are painful and revelatory. Bennington
ends up exhausted and in tears--and Davis winds up back on the street, spouting
poetry. The moral, once again, is voiced by Esposito. "I only know if you try to
rescue everybody," he tells Bennington, "you're the one who ends up getting
lost." Sounds as if his education is well under way--and hers, too.

Already 100 Centre Street has displayed some glimmers of insight into America's
diversity and the perplexities that underlie it. Take the friendship between the
two judges--Rifkind, the Jewish liberal, and Sims, the tough African American.
It's a canny portrayal. Just when we're getting too comfortable with it, Lumet
injects a jarring note: Although they've been dining partners on the job for
years, Rifkind has never invited Sims to his apartment for a family meal.

It would be great if these discordant notes formed a tune--if 100 Centre
dissected in fine, entertaining detail how America's courts and legal
apparatus fall short, or if the show allowed the mistakes made by Rifkind and
Esposito to achieve tragic intensity. But the pressures of series television
threaten to keep all this from happening. After a provocative start, 100
Centre Street
seems to be growing more formulaic and more improbable.

One episode centers on a media-savvy Vietnamese immigrant named Phan Van Trong who
holds Sims at gunpoint while demanding both a "network uplink" and the conviction
of a former American soldier whose troops killed Trong's civilian family during
the Vietnam War. Only on television would a judge with a gun at her head actually
try to stage something that could pass for a fair trial. In this case, the
"trial" dutifully rehearses familiar arguments about the plight of soldiers and
civilians in a guerrilla war without clear battle lines.

Sims issues a not-guilty verdict, and her assailant, after an abortive suicide attempt, is
captured and read his rights. Later Rifkind asks Sims whether she ever
entertained finding against the American--presumably to keep herself from being
shot. No, Sims replies, adverting to the law: "The people didn't prove their case
beyond a reasonable doubt."

Seems to be an affirmation of the system, right? Fortunately, the episode doesn't stop there. It shows Sims reentering the
darkened courtroom and replaying the old news videotape showing the shooting in
Vietnam. In the chaos of war, innocent people undoubtedly were killed--even if
the question of guilt remains elusive. The episode ends on Sims's troubled
visage, as she ponders the nagging gap between law and justice. It's a redemptive
moment, for Sims and for 100 Centre Street.