Finished with “The Night Of” and disappointed at the conclusion. It set up some very interesting characters, especially seedy lawyer Jack Stone, world-weary prosecutor Helen Weiss, enigmatic detective Sgt. Box, and saturnine inmate king Freddy, But the series squandered its promise in inept courtroom scenes and an implausible ending that might have come from Frank Capra.
I’m not the only one disappointed in this series. One observer, citing the numerous ethical lapses on the part of all the lawyers involved in the story, observed that “virtually all TV and film involving lawyers portrays them as the essence of evil or foolishness. ”
That may be true now but it wasn’t always so. Unsavory lawyers go back to Dickens and earlier but for a brief period within living memory, films and television had many positive portrayals of lawyers. This era seems to have begun in the late 1950’s and run its course until the Watergate era. Raymond Burr’s “Perry Mason” probably doesn’t count since he really wasn’t a lawyer but within a few short years we had Jimmy Stewart’s conscientious Paul Biegler in “Anatomy of Murder” (1959), Charles Laughton’s stylish Sir Wilfred Roberts in “Witness for the Prosecution (1957), Gregory Peck’s saintly Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962), and E.G. Marshall in “The Defenders” as Lawrence Preston between 1961-1965. Jose Ferer’s Barney Greenwald in “The Caine Mutiny” (1954) doesn’t quite fit the seeming trend of positive lawyer images; Greenwald has no hesitation about torpedoing Captain Queeg even if he feels rotten about it. Andy Griffith folksy “Matlock” (1986-1995) would seem to work against this idea, but it always felt it was about Andy Griffith, rather than lawyering. When you consider such bleak works as “And Justice For All” (1979) and “The Verdict” (1981), it’s hard not to see the beginning of trend toward rather dark images of lawyers in film and TV beginning in the late 1970’s, despite possible outliers like Matlock, Tom Cruise’s Lt. Kaffee in “A Few Food Men” (1992). I would argue the “LA Law” (1986-1994) and most of its progeny, including David E. Kelley’s oeuvre, fits firmly within this growing trend toward “evil or foolishness”.
Of all the positive portrayals of lawyers during this brief era of good feeling, perhaps none is so little remembered now or so lightly regarded then as the short -lived series “The Young Lawyers” which ran from 1969-1971, on ABC, naturally. Earnest young idealistic lawyers serving justice by working at the Neighborhood Legal Office. Pre-Watergate, pre-Bates v. Arizona, just at the beginning of the Golden Age of Lawyering. Obviously pitched toward the evanescent youth market, it was just a little too earnest to be terribly interesting. From our perspective, the most interesting part is that enough people found it sufficiently interesting to keep on the air for three seasons. Many young lawyers in real life were working in similar circumstances to earnestly help people, and many of the young lawyers continued to do so even to this day. But the public’s attention moved on. l
But the public’s attention moved on. Unfortunately, evil and foolishness usually create more dramatic possibilities than good works and the fight for justice. Real events involving lawyers at the highest level soon provided drama that far outstripped any mere fiction. Massive growth in number of lawyers,the unprecedented growth in lawyer income, both facets of the commodification of the law business, obscured the idealism that still motivates many lawyers.
I don’t expect to see the 21st century’s Atticus Finch on the screen anytime soon. We have all gotten too cynical for that. There is room for stories with heroes and lawyers can be heroes, too. “The Night Of” strained for some heroic moments in Jack Stone’s seeming transformation into Clarence Darrow but it just didn’t seem real after all the effort to make him pathetic. Weiss’s moment of seeming redemption at the end seemed just as false. I applaud that effort but note the third lawyer involved is in the Khan case is effectively damned beyond redemption, a victim of in the series most exploitative and disappointing sub plot.
Still, in an era where hundreds of television series are created a year, it’s entirely possible that we might be surprised with with a great positive lawyer movie or TV series, our equivalent of “Anatomy of a Murder” “The Defenders” or even “The Young Lawyers.” Something you could not anticipate.
Stranger Things have happened.