Best Legal TV Shows - TV Lawyers
Legal TV Shows - They Keep Us Watching!
It seems we may be addicted to the best legal TV shows on both sides of the Atlantic and indeed some of the best legal TV shows from the UK and the USA have dominated television schedules all over the world.
Legal shows and shows featuring lawyers are not a recent addition to TV - some of the first (and best?) arrived on TV in the 1960s and like all good stories involving lawyers and criminals - they have stood the test of time.
Some of the shows like Perry Mason still look like well-made dramas and Raymond Burr certainly did have a certain gravitas to bring to the role.
In the UK, we still enjoy a good courtroom drama with shows like Judge John Deeds and Silks enjoying viewers into the millions.
So this article is a tribute to the best legal TV shows, from the early 1960s to the present day.
So take a seat - and remember, "silence in court"!
Best 1960s TV Lawyers
The 1960s started off their legal TV shows in style with The Law And Mrs Jones starring James Whitmore as the wonderfully named Abraham Lincoln Jones.
The court cases mainly consisted of his law clerk, C.E. Carruthers (Conlan Carter) helping him to put together cases against fraudsters and embezzlers, ably assisted by his secretary, Marsha Spear.
The show had a loyal audience for its two seasons in 1960 - 61 and had the fine character actor James Whitmore in the main role. Whitmore was already a well-respected stage and screen actor, having already won both a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination for the 1949 movie, Battleground.
He is probably best remembered by more recent audiences for his performance as Brooks in the prison movie, Shawshank Redemption.
Although The Law and Mrs Jones only lasted 2 seasons, it led the way for similar legal dramas and was a well-made show with high quality acting.
One of the shows to follow The Law and Mr Jones was The Defenders, a story of a father and son law firm which focused on more topical issues at the time, even covering one show on the subject of abortion. The Defenders writer was Reginald Rose, most famous for writing the movie 'Twelve Angry Men'. Rose could be compared in many ways with one of today's top writers, like Aaron Sorkin who is equally unafraid to feature controversial topics in his many prime time TV shows.
The Defenders show starred E.G. Martin and Robert Reed, the latter much more famous as the dad in The Brady Bunch!
Perry Mason starring Raymond Burr is perhaps the most well-known of the 1960s legal TV shows and actually began life in the 1950s as a radio show. Perry Mason was based on the novels by Erie Stanley Gardner. The plotlines were fairly rigid from week to week but were still suspenseful and very popular, making Perry Mason the longest running lawyer shows. Raymond Burr played Mason to perfection; it is difficult to imagine anyone else in the role, he truly made it his own.
In Britain, a show called Boyd QC covered similar ground to The Law and Mr Jones though with a bit more edge. Sadly, almost every episode of the show was lost. Another popular show called Brothers In Law starring a young Richard Briers as a young solicitor ran for many years in the late 50s and early 60s and was, surprisingly for a legal TV show, a comedy!
Best 1970s TV Lawyers
Perhaps one of the best legal TV shows in the 1970s was The Paper Chase, which was successful on both sides of the Atlantic and featured the wonderful John Houseman as Professor Kingsfield, overseeing the success or otherwise of law students at Harvard.
The great thing about The Paper Chase was that it was about the law but in a very different way; the storylines mainly concentrated on the successes or otherwise of 3 law students and there was more going on in their personal lives than just college so it was a sort of legal soap opera at times.
It ran for 8 years between 1978 and 1986, though had a rather chequered time getting onto the screen, being dropped after a year by CBS. It was revived by Showtime in the early 80s to an audience more ready for it.
One of the 70s best legal TV shows was Petrocelli which on the face of it should have never been a hit. Its storyline revolved around Harvard graduate Tony Petrocelli's decision to leave the rat race and the city behind in favour of a move to the country and the supposedly 'sleepy' town of San Remo.
Tony and his wife Maggie live in a trailer and are having a house built (it never does get finished).
Petrocelli was possibly one of the most formulaic TV shows in that the storylines almost always revolved around the defendant going to be found guilty with Petrocelli coming upon some crucial evidence just when it matters and saving the day! We still loved it! One thing that was never explained was why there were so many murderers in 'sleepy' San Remo.
One of the most successful British legal TV shows was Rumpole of The Bailey starring Leo McKearn who was a very funny barrister in a show blending comedy and drama. McKearn was an amazing actor and the show is still show today on British satellite TV.
It must seem odd to viewers from other countries watching to see the actors in all of the garb of the British legal system, wigs are de riguer - it's the law!
Another British legal TV show which was very popular was Crown Court -it was actually daytime TV but had good viewing figures. Crown Court was all filmed inside the court and the grand jury were made up of members of the public.
Best 1980s TV Lawyers
Perhaps one of THE best legal TV shows was LA Law.
It was certainly one of the 1980s best shows in any category.
LA Law was a show now which sums up pop culture of the time - look at it now for the men's and women's fashions, haircuts and the whole high powered law firm in the city vibe.
Other law shows went in other directions after this one, tending to keep it more serious; LA Law did a very successful job of doing drama and comedy in equal measure and the storylines about the lawyers personal lives really made the difference to the average viewer.
It ran from 1986 to 1994 and was one of writer/producer Steven Bochco's biggest TV hits. Many of its stars are still on TV today, Harry Hamlin, Blair Underwood, Michele Greene and Jimmy Smits all went on to other prime time TV shows and LA Law is still a good show when you watch it now; sometimes style won over substance but it was its ability to combine the two which made it successful.
In Britain, Rumpole of the Bailey was still going strong into the 1980s, Leo McKearn's scripts were still being shaped by Rumpole's creator John Mortimer, keeping the show as popular in the 80s as it had been in the previous 2 decades.
Best 1990s TV Lawyers
Perhaps the best legal TV show Law And Order began its life in 1990.
The show followed a slightly different format bringing criminal case and legal case into a neat dovetail in the hour long show.
In this respect, it actually copies a little known 1960s legal show called Arrest and Trial which starred Ben Gazzarra and Chuck Connors.
Law And Order in its first incarnation starred Sam Waterston and Jerry Orbach in the lead roles; Waterston as lawyer Jack McCoy and cop Lennie Briscoe. It was gritty and edge of the seat for most of the show and survived 10 years in its first format.
Over the years, Law And Order has like CSI gone off in other more specific directions; one of the most popular of these is Law And Order SVU (Special Victims Unit) which took on more sexual violence cases and gave the show a new level of drama which has remained popular. Its star, Mariska Hargitay created one of TVs most popular and well-respected characters, Detective Olivia Benson.
Running alongside Law And Order was The Practice which had the chic, stylish leanings of LA Law but without the comedy. It was a good show because it featured more controversial court cases but also let us see all of the partners in court, changing the focus of the show every week. There was also some personal life covered and quite a few love affairs between some of the partners.
In British TV, 'Is It Legal' was a popular legal comedy starring Imelda Staunton, later to be famous for being Oscar nominated for the movie, Vera Drake. Law has continued to be a popular topic for British comedy.
'Kinsey', starring Leigh Lawson lasted only 2 seasons and was outshone in every respect by that other K - Kavanagh QC starring John Thaw as the working-class lad made good who ends up sitting Queen's Counsel.
Kavanagh was popular for many years and was also more in the legal/soap opera style with Kavanagh's personal life taking up a lot of the show and adding some lightness to the darker courtroom drama.
Best 2000s TV Lawyers
More lately, Law and Order CI (Criminal Intent) has also been hugely popular, running from 2001 to 2011 and starring Vincent D'Onofrio and Kathryn Erbe. D'Onofrio took over from Chris Noth in the lead role and brings an intensity to the role of renegade cop, Robert Goren.
Law and Order has always been shot in a streetwise, tough, mean and moody style and cuts scenes at quite a rate; you better not blink or you will miss it!
Law and Order continues to be an extremely popular TV show which because of franchising remains a stalwart of satellite and cable TV schedules.
In Britain, Judge John Deed enjoyed a long spell on prime time TV with Martin Shaw in the lead role, supported by Jenny Seagrove. Deeds is a bit of a maverick, being a stickler for seeing 'real justice' in his courtroom.
In fact, many of his court decisions were publicly criticized by British judges who say Deed's decisions were flawed and those things would never happen in a real court.
Martin Shaw felt that the show was becoming too formulaic and went on sabbatical, asking for the writers to 'refresh' its format. Sadly, this never happened and it was cancelled in 2009.
In more recent times the British legal TV show Silks starring Maxine Peake has enjoyed popularity. The public seem to enjoy Peake's gutsy performance.
Maxine Peake had already appeared in another legal drama, Criminal Justice, also written by Silk's writer, Peter Moffat.
Criminal Justice was shown every night over a week, very unusual on British TV but done deliberately to give viewers that sense of a court case coming to order every day for new evidence. It was very compelling.
'Silks' is about barristers on their pursuit of achieving Queen's Counsel(in the UK, this is known as 'taking silk' referring to their gowns and full silk lined wigs) and is unlike any legal drama before in its realistic portrayal of barristers behaving as they really do; Moffet, a barrister himself, wanted to show it like it really was and sometimes ambition is ugly.
Another legal TV show enjoying huge popularity at the moment is The Good Wife, the tale of a jailed ex district attourney's rise through a legal firm.
The Good Wife has wonderful court scenes and has lots of twists and turns in the firm as well. Personally, I think the best thing about The Good Wife is Kalinda - she is the cleverest woman in any show in TV at the moment, and she is British!
Why Do We Love Lawyers on TV
A magazine recently suggested that women enjoy watching shows like Law and Order Special Victims Unit because it provides them with tips on how to cope in the even of a sexual crime being committed against them.
While there may be some truth in that, I think most of us like to watch TV legal and lawyer shows because we want to understand how the law works and under what circumstances the law doesn't work quite so well. Mostly though, we like to be entertained.
There is nothing more satisfying than watching a lawyer work out how best to defend or prosecute once they are in court.
All of the shenanigans and investigations leading up to the moment when they are trying to cross-examine a witness are as gripping as the verdict itself - and we all enjoy suspense.
Red Herrings come thick and fast and the adversarial nature of lawyers make the scripts really good.
So maybe the main reason we enjoy legal TV shows is that they are entertaining! I am sure I may have missed some of your own personal favourites and I apologise for that but hope you have enjoyed reading about some of mine.
Many thanks for reading.