The magazine of the country’s largest organization of lawyers, the American Bar Associaton has published its list of the 25 all-time greatest legal television shows from enduring classics like “LA Law,” “Law & Order,” and “Perry Mason” to some quirkier choices like the animated “Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law” and the short-lived divorce lawyer drama “Civil Wars.” The list includes a comedy (“Night Court”) and genre-expanding, even surreal (“Ally McBeal”). Some focus more on civil litigators with controversial cases like “Owen Marshall,” “Boston Legal,” “The Practice,” and “The Defenders,” while others focus on the military (“JAG”), civilian prosecutors (“Law & Order”) or defense attorneys — almost always with innocent clients, of course — (“Perry Mason”). Sometimes, the focus is on the judge (“Judging Amy”).
Drama requires confrontation, and putting on a trial is always about telling a story, or rather telling two competing stories and letting the judge and jury decide which one they believe. And the law is where people go in the direst of circumstances, often when they have already tried to come to an agreement and failed. Only certain parts of the story are relevant in a courtroom, but it is always intriguing to find out what goes on behind all of that party of the first part and let the record show. So courtrooms and law offices are always a good place to look for good stories. Real-life lawyers like Erle Stanley Gardner (creator of Perry Mason), barrister John Mortimer (creator of “Rumpole of the Bailey”), Terry Louis Fisher (co-creator of “LA Law”), and Fred Thompson (co-star of “Law & Order”).
In an interview in the magazine, Sam Waterston of “Law & Order” reminds us that there is a fantasy element to even the grittiest legal drama on television. The cases brought to conclusion in one episode would take months or years to resolve in real life. “We tell stories about what’s fair and what’s just so we can get our minds around them, or just get to know them. In reality, conclusions are muddy, there are no final curtains, and life just goes on.”