Raising the Bar is the latest legal drama from Stephen Bochco. I gave up on television legal dramas years ago, and I probably would have skipped this one entirely if it hadn’t been for the involvement of David Feige, whose Indefensible blog is on my daily reading list.
The long review will have spoilers, so here’s the short review: I didn’t like it much, but I’m willing to give it a chance on the strength of David Feige’s involvement.
Spoiler Alert for the pilot episode of Raising the Bar.
Spoiler Alert for the pilot episode of Raising the Bar.
Let me just get this out of the way: I know it’s a Stephen Bochco production, but could they please scale back the sexual escapades? It’s just not that interesting until we get to know the characters. If I want to see people I don’t know having sex, that’s what the internet is for.
When I watch a legal drama, I want it to crackle with authenticity. I want it to teach me things about the law and the world. Raising the Bar didn’t do that for me. I’m not sure why.
Some public defenders have had problems with the level of realism in the show. Check out, for example, Seth Abramson’s ten questions for David Feige. Amusingly, you can tell from the URL that he originally had only five questions, but he must have thought of more as he was writing.
Those things are bound to bother public defenders and defense lawyers a lot more than they do me. I don’t care, for example, that Michelle’s clothing is unrealistic in a courtroom, or that a prosecutor wouldn’t make himself a witness in a case by sitting in on the interrogation. The latter is just a way to simplify the story, and the former is just showbiz.
(I can understand where the PDs are coming from, however. It’s taken me quite a while to learn to enjoy movies and television shows that feature computer technology because the mistakes in the details kept breaking my willing suspension of disbelief.)
I guess my basic problem with the pilot for Raising the Bar is that we’ve seen this plot before: A young and idealistic public defender fights so hard for his innocent client that the judge jails him for contempt.
I’ll admit that the way it happens is more interesting than usual. The PD, Jerry Kellerman, has a client charged with rape and (something like) possession of a weapon with intent to harm. Jerry believes, correctly we later find out, that his client is truly innocent.
Jerry goes to trial and beats the rape charge because the victim’s ID of the defendant is weak and there’s no other evidence. However, the jury convicts on the weapon charge. As is explained later, without the rape, the “intent to harm” part of the weapon charge should go away. The jury has apparently misunderstood the law.
The judge, however, is having none of it. She apparently believes the client is getting away with rape, so instead of throwing out the weapon conviction, she promises to sentence the client to the maximum penalty for the knife—3.5 to 7 years. Jerry could appeal, we find out, but that could take so long that even if he wins, the client will serve most of his time anyway.
(I wish the show had explained why it’s such a serious crime to possess a small pocket knife in New York. Is that for real?)
Anyway, at this point Jerry goes ballistic and tells off the judge, so she jails him for contempt. However, through a manipulative clerk and a cooperative DA, she is eventually convinced that her career will be harmed by a reversal or by the bad publicity of jailing a PD with an innocent client.
Somehow all this misses what I enjoy most about legal fiction. The facts of the case are uninteresting, unexplored, and unchallenged. There’s no talk about trial strategy, no thrilling witness examination, no interesting physical evidence. Instead of showing us how the lawyer prepares for the case and tells a good story to the jury, we see him win through obstinacy and back-channel influence in the judge’s chambers.
For all I know, that’s realistic, but it’s not what I was hoping to see.
All I can think of is that maybe this was David Feige’s point. Maybe a defense lawyer can have both the facts and the law in his favor and still lose the case if the judge is a jerk. Maybe the law and the facts don’t matter because the system is broken.
I should add that the show has an awkward feel to it. The mood is inconsistent, and some of the dialog seems forced. Shows like House and The Closer can mix gripping drama with tons of exposition and moments of humor and do it well, but Raising the Bar doesn’t quite pull it off.
I’m still planning to give the show a chance. Many shows have uneven pilots that are bloated and distorted by the need to introduce the characters and the premise. And a lot of new shows don’t really come together until maybe four to eight episodes into the season. I think it’s because the writers are working without any good feedback for the first few episodes. Not until they start seeing actual produced episodes can they begin shaping their writing to the strengths of the show.
I guess it’s supposed to make us viewers care about his plight, but from what I know of the public defender breed, it feels like a betrayal to imply that having an innocent client will make them try harder to win, because that implies that they won’t try very hard for their other clients.
I hope that future episodes will introduce us to some of the less pristine clients. Show us the frequent fliers and hapless losers. Show us the client whose case can be fought without ever knowing if he did it. Show us the plight of the guilty client who’s been overcharged, or the petty criminal who’s stepped on a habitual offender landmine and is now facing more time in prison than he’s been alive. Show us the parade of corner kids all walking the same path through the justice system because they don’t know any other life.
People as talented as David Feige and Stephen Bochco should be able to make a dramatic legal series without the crutch of an innocent client.
One last thought struck me as I was reading David’s various defenses of Raising the Bar: We can’t tell if he really means what he says about the show. He has to stand by it. In a sense, he’s in almost exactly the same situation defending the show as he would be defending a client. And the penalty for betrayal is the same too: Disbarment. If he says bad things about his own show, he’ll never get to do another show again.