Bar News - October 15, 2014
How to Get Away with Murder Makes Me Want to Smash Things
By: Michael Davidow
My toddler son has a certain toy (given to him by my wifeís father) that I canít stand. Itís a tractor with various buttons to push with each button producing a new sound. For instance, one button results in some hayseed singing ďOld MacDonaldĒ Ė with banjo accompaniment. I have recurring fantasies of taking this thing into our backyard and smashing it with a baseball bat. But my wife wonít let me do that because (a) she thinks I would somehow hurt myself; and (b) she claims: ďhe likes it.Ē I think he knows how I feel about it, though, because whenever he can, he takes it, he sits in front of me, and he presses those buttons over and over again, punishing me for all my sins. Ee-eye-ee-eye-oh.
Itís in that spirit that I recently sat down to watch the first episode of How To Get Away With Murder, a new television program about criminal law now appearing on ABC every Thursday night.
Viola Davis stars as a law professor who allows her best students to work on her cases. In the show I watched, they help her win a murder trial. Those same students also apparently participate in a murder of their own, which they then need to cover up. The show goes back and forth in time. And it turns out that their professor herself might also be involved in that killing. She and her husband are having rival affairs. Everyone, in fact, seems to be having an affair. I do not remember law school as being that interesting.
Television shows about the law tend to fall into three categories. Some treat the lawyer as a detective who solves crimes; the most famous TV lawyers of all, Perry Mason and Rumpole of the Bailey, owed more to Sherlock Holmes than they ever did to Clarence Darrow.
Some use the legal profession as the backdrop for soap opera or comedy; the collected works of David E. Kelley (Ally McBeal, LA Law, Boston Legal) all belong to that group. And others use the legal milieu to press a social agenda, such as Judging Amy or The Defenders (with Robert Reed, who became an architect after that, so he could star in The Brady Bunch).
How to Get Away With Murder combines those classic strains and adds another as well: the drama of the student. Not so much The Paper Chase, however, as Harry Potter. Gothic sets predominate in this show, and there are even hints of witchcraft and mugglery.
Those Harry Potter genes are no mistake, either, because this show is also a clear attempt to make the legal drama relevant to a new age Ė the age of cable and Internet, in which producers, freed from the need to generate mass appeal and able instead to focus on niche audiences, have become more and more extreme in their storytelling, and audiences have accordingly become used to the lurid and the baroque. And thatís fine. Great art can come from corruption Ė the glories of Jacobean drama, for instance. But so can junk. Which is also easier to make.
When it comes to fiction, experience teaches this: Itís fine for an author to put a nun into a prizefight, and itís even okay for her to have a good left hook. And if the author has a valid reason for her presence, then you have drama. If the author does not, then you have comedy. But if the author puts a nun into a prizefight with no reason at all, and then proceeds to take her seriously, then you have a problem. If the author is aware of that problem, you end up with camp. If the author is not aware of it, you end up with kitsch.
It therefore remains to be seen whether this new legal show will end up as camp or kitsch, because it features prizefighting nuns in nearly every scene. The law school bears no resemblance to reality. The relationships between the characters are dictated wholly by plot. The courtroom scenes are cartoonish. Every last aspect of this program rings false.
Older shows didnít get everything right either, of course. But they usually got at least one thing right. Ally McBeal, for instance, nailed the quirkiness of law firm life, showing that its creator knew about that firsthand (which he did). Even Perry Mason showed real affection for the courtroom itself. This is only fitting, as its creator, Erle Stanley Gardner, litigated cases in California for more than a decade before his writing could support him.
How to Get Away with Murder was not made by people who have dealt with the law. It was made by people who have watched other shows. And nobody will watch it and want to become a lawyer. They will watch it and want to become a television star.
But every generation gets the lawyers it deserves, and ours apparently deserves a pure Hollywood confection, as divorced from real life as any sword-rattling warrior or witch.
On another note, this will be my last column for the Bar News. It seemed like a good time to give it rest. I would like to thank everyone who has read these articles, though, because it has been a privilege to write them. Until then, Iíll see you in court. Until then, Iíll see you in court.
Michael Davidow is a staff attorney at the NH Public Defender office in Nashua and the author of Split Thirty, a novel about politics and advertising. The authorís opinions are his own and do not represent the opinions of his employer, or the NH Bar Association.
Editorís Note: Bar News would like to sincerely thank Michael Davidow for his thoughtful and popular contributions to these pages, as well as his punctual submissions. We hope he will still consider dropping us a line from time to time. Any readers interested in writing for this space, please contact Managing Editor Kristen Senz.