Perry Mason, The Good Fight, Better Call Saul, and the new Dark Age for TV attorneys.

By Darren Franich
June 18, 2020 at 09:00 AM EDT
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Raymond Burr won hundreds of cases defending the wrongfully accused on Perry Mason. That legal drama was the legal drama for TV’s first generation, and Burr’s Perry was everything smallscreen heroism could be, broad cliffside shoulders declaiming complete moral assurance. In HBO’s grim reboot, premiering June 21, Matthew Rhys plays the title character as a low-rent shamus in ‘30s Los Angeles, sweating Prohibition booze through a five-o-clock-somewhere shadow. His wife took the kid. The family farm’s in tax trouble. He doesn’t even start practicing law until episode 6, which represents the handsomely dull drama’s worst Origin Story instincts. It also sums up the state of the genre: TV’s most victorious attorney is now a loser who barely wants to be an attorney.

We’re way past the glory days when David E. Kelley vacuumed up Emmys with The Practice and Ally McBeal. The only failed Chicago was Justice. Pearson wasn’t the new Suits. Savvy parodies The Grinder and Trial & Error died young. You sense desperation in recent format twists. For Life: The lawyer’s in prison! All Rise: The lawyer’s a judge! There was something so hopeful in the old narrative repetitions: noble advocates, big speeches, a whole trial compressed into one hour with commercials. Now the default TV mode requires serialization. And who’s feeling hopeful?

Other sacred drama species keep thriving. Doctors are still big business, a whole generation of sexy handsomes in sweaty scrubs never quite catching up to Grey’s Anatomy. Cop shows proliferate across broadcast’s primetime, which always surprises anyone too young to grok “broadcast” or “primetime.”

Both genres appeal to modern television’s look-at-me extremism — the sense that everything must always be exploding, emotionally or literally. Doctors give speeches about America’s broken healthcare system between glossy high-tech surgical impossibilities. Investigators utilize military-grade technology and god’s-eye surveillance, enacting righteous killgasms unto killing killers. There have been sincere calls for an end, or at least a demilitarized evolution, of the police procedural — understandable given recent events, probably inevitable given how decadent that narrative style trended last decade. The most famous policeman of the 2010s was Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) on The Walking Dead, a deputy reborn into a brave new world where excessive force is mandatory and nobody ever files paperwork. Righteous deathgods of law enforcement aren’t exclusive to the populist-reactionary front. The archetype can be prestigious, even progressive. Angela Abar (Regina King) beat up white supremacists for a corrupt police department with airship funding — and Watchmen wound up declaring her a new god.

Difficult to find room in this new normal for the legal profession, which is all about the paperwork: Briefs filed, motions denied, evidence collated. You can’t action-up a courtroom. People are sitting, except the lawyer pacing back and forth. In our lifetime — probably in this decade — the job's jacket-and-tie formality will look as unnaturally costumed as the wigs worn by British barristers.

Occasionally, a limited event like The Night Of or The People v. O.J. Simpson will embrace trials as a model for single-season thrills: Inciting premiere crime, rising action through the rituals of litigation, a shocking finale judgment. One out of every 17 miniseries is pretty good, but I’ve come around to thinking the entire form is kind of a cheat, more an offshoot of binge culture than a demonstration of what television does best. And two of the great legal dramas of the year — two of the greatest dramas of our time — confront their own obsolescence head-on, mixing individual standout cases with years-long character studies.

Warrick Page/AMC/Sony Pictures Television; Patrick Harbron/CBS

The Good Fight and Better Call Saul aren’t enough for a trend, and available metrics don’t suggest a zeitgeist. They’ve enjoyed healthy runs on CBS All Access and AMC, kept alive by brand equity, network-showrunner coziness, and the bleating supplications of critical acclaim. Anecdotally, I get the vibe that people who never try Good Fight or gave up on Saul consider them too safe, too modest — maybe just too old, casts and crew middle-aged, spun off from elder properties from the pre-Netflix Mesozoic. But together they represent a sustained assault on a once exalted genre: The legal drama’s supernova, or a thrilling new Dark Age.

The Good Fight’s heroes are old-fashioned crusaders, typically tackling a new case every week. Reddick, Boseman & Lockhart is a recognizably televisual version of a law firm, staffed by witty philosophers with expensive closets, their glass-walled conference room built at the nexus of every major ethical problem facing the nation today. COVID-19 shortened the fourth season, which still found time to address [deep breath] transphobia, misogyny, institutional racism, tokenism in the Democratic National Committee, the clash of gender ideologies between generations of black liberals, and the hidden history of “secret laws” created by the White House.

Actually that’s all explored in one episode, “The Gang Offends Everyone,” which sure does. Adrian Boseman (Delroy Lindo) takes a case about the Olympic swim team, arguing for an African American swimmer (Christiani Pitts) and ultimately against her transgender teammate (Dana Aliya Levinson). The particulars are twisted and specific, steeped in testosterone measurements and convenient qualification delays. Adrian frames it as a civil rights dispute with a dash of feminism: “Here’s a young African American athlete who has worked her whole life for this, and now someone just takes it away from her?” The younger attorneys in Adrian’s firm protest, proclaiming his entire line of argument an act of transphobia. “You can’t pit women’s rights against trans rights,” says a disturbed younger lawyer (Anastacia McCleskey). “There is an epidemic of transgender violence, especially women of color getting attacked and murdered.”

Patrick Harbron/CBS

Good Fight is best known to non-viewers for its anti-Trump stance, and is explicitly in favor of punching Nazis. That reputation belies its real power as an engine for ideological bafflement. It features a racially diverse cast of wealthy, well-educated liberals, and it can be uniquely specific in its broader points. At one point in season 3, the partners sit around a table ruefully discussing the epidemic of police brutality against unarmed African Americans. “Do you all notice,” asks Lucca (Cush Jumbo), “that the black people here know the names of the victims of police shootings, but the others don’t?” It’s a study of racism among allies: left-on-left crime. In season 4, the firm gets purchased by a conglomerate for purely ornamental reasons. “They don’t value our work, our employees, our history, or our culture!” says Adrian. “They want us for our black faces on their diversity reports.” Some kind of prophecy there, at a moment when every heartless corporation has its own Black Lives Matter tweet.

Creators Michelle and Robert King throw their characters into a gray area where no one ever walks away happy. Adrian is a proud Democrat with a successful track record as a progressive attorney — the DNC literally thinks he should run for President! — and yet he usually comes off as a defender of a collapsing status quo, arguing against close allies even as their mutual enemies rip civil liberties out from under everyone’s feet. “I don’t have the luxury right now of being outraged,” Adrian declares, when yet another political-firestorm-of-the-week threatens his life and legacy. “That doesn’t mean I’m not outraged.”

His partner Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski) is outraged, and doesn’t care if anyone knows it. In season 4, she tries to uncover the mystery of Memo 618, a get-out-of-jail-free card for rich people. The plot thread comes off like something out of The X-Files or Fringe, complete with an omniscient nameless envoy for inscrutable higher powers. But the Kafkaesque set-up circles toward the real-life Office of Legal Counsel, a Justice Department office with a bleak history extending from the Japanese internment camps to the post-9/11 torture memos.

The madcap trials and larger serialized investigation tell the same story. Good Fight’s lawyers are great at their job, so successful they benefit from the tax cuts they abhor. They are also sincere enough to believe in the title, taking bleeding-heart clients alongside fancy inquisitions of Fake Google or An Artist Who Is Basically Taylor Swift. But they are practitioners of a code no one around them takes seriously: Not the boots-on the-ground activists whose mission they support, certainly not the people powerful enough to live above the rules. The stunning (albeit accidental) finale of season 4 spiraled through a semi-factual exploration of Jeffrey Epstein’s death. It’s a conspiracy thriller cobwebbing science fiction through a Citizen Kane homage — but the point is to explore how Epstein’s wealth was a true-life Memo 618. Rich white men ignore a system that imprisons everyone else: Timely subject matter for our days of protest.

Greg Lewis/AMC

Beyond the shared courtroom setting, Better Call Saul comes off like a whole different species of TV drama. It's rigidly non-topical, for one thing, set in a pre-Recession New Mexico where people barely ever use computers. The Breaking Bad spin-off is also more obviously contemporary as a prestige project, full of artful visuals and sequences shot on location in a helplessly allegorical desert. Good Fight has a brisk, talky style that isn’t afraid to look theatrical, a kind of greatness you would never call “cinematic." Saul might spend five wordless minutes watching Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) patiently track someone through witching-hour Albuquerque.

And Saul is intensely micro in its depiction of the legal profession. The DNC does not, like, walk into anyone's office demanding a Socratic dialogue about the Black Democratic vote. Actually, the big breakthrough for Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) was a lawsuit against a retirement home, which stretched over three seasons and looks newly central for the show’s final year. The first awesome court showdown, between Jimmy and his older brother Chuck (Michael McKean), focused on a few numbers altered on a legal document: Shakespearean espionage by way of Kinko’s. And Jimmy’s partner/love interest/polar opposite/shadow self Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn) has spent most of the series working diligently as the legal counsel for Mesa Verde, a local bank with big expansion plans.

Elder Care, Document Fraud, Real Estate Law for Financial Institutions: We’re miles away from the murder-assault-robbery axis of legal plotlines. This is, of course, the day-to-day venial reality for attorneys who don’t prosecute serial killers, and Saul can always extrapolate small crimes into tall tales. Part of this has to do with the nature of Jimmy's practice. He’s finicky about his clients’ appearance. He hires actors to play fake relatives. In a brief season 1 sequence, he studies Matlock for fashion cues. It's more than a referential gag. Jimmy choreographs his defenses like he’s scripting a ridiculous legal melodrama — and it always, always works.

This could be the whole Better Call Saul story: The last TV lawyer as an amoral villain, wielding the letter of law as a cudgel for his sheer lying spirit, using the theatrics of his genre to keep criminals on the streets. Certainly, in Saul’s early seasons, it looked like a companion series to Breaking Bad, another story of an angrily talented man ascending toward criminal success while descending into moral ruin. Later seasons reveal a story that is remarkably even darker, with co-creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould formulating a twisted moral tragedy that goes far beyond the renamed Saul Goodman.

Kim’s motivations are almost comically simple: She wants to satisfy her clients, and she wants to do the right thing. Her arc polarizes those two goals into opposing mission statements. In the season 5 finale, Kim gives up a lucrative career in corporate law, rebooting as a pro bono defender of the little people. “I just want to make sure that I’m spending my time where I’m doing the most good,” she tells an overworked public defender, Grant (Roy Wood Jr.), offering to take 20 felonies off his schedule.

She walks into the Public Defender File Room, a felony graveyard with terrible lighting and boxes stuffed to the brim with pending trials. Possession, Possession with Intent, Assault, Public Intoxication, Petty Larceny, Trespassing, Juvenile, endless piles, endless paperwork, endless work. The Public Defender’s office is backed up, Grant explains, because so many lawyers jumped ship to the private sector. He leaves Kim to select cases at her leisure. She already looks exhausted.

By episode's end, she's plotting a scam against Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian), an aristocratic attorney with a yoga tan, that would result in a financial windfall for Jimmy (and, by extension, herself). This bleak turn ties eerily back into Kim’s fundamental decency. She'd use the money to launch a well-funded firm, so she can "give regular people the kind of representation usually only millionaires get." She wants the kind of hero crew of lawyers you usually only see on television. So what if one somewhat unlikeable (but un-evil) guy takes a career hit?

Somewhat incongruously, Saul has also tracked Bad’s cartel melodrama backwards, cutting across town to the luscious atrocities of Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) and the bottomless clown car of nasty Salamanca nephews. I used to think this was an accident of fan service, some narco-nihilist violence for any viewers bored of judicial chicanery. I was wrong, as usual. There is something so unique about a drama where two main characters practice pedantic document law while barely interacting with a couple other main characters plotting bloody infernos. One world is defined by frustrating legality; the other is somehow more primal and more logical, dominated by the easy-to-grasp dialectic of money and violence.

The two worlds are moving closer together — or rather, the more familiar version of reality, defined by familiar social contracts, dips irrevocably toward chaos. In season 5, Jimmy/Saul defends murder suspect Lalo Salamanca (Tony Dalton). With typical wonk-ish specificity, Saul never properly gets around to the trial but turns a bail hearing into high-stakes drama. The judge sets Lalo's bail at $7 million, a huge number on a show where Jimmy tends to grind three-digit fees off working-class misdemeanors. “I can do that,” Lalo says, nonchalantly. It's a variation on Memo 618, another rich guy swatting the law away like a mosquito.

For a con man like Jimmy, that kind of power is intoxicating. But that’s also true for Kim, a person with generally strong moral fiber. She’s not staging a Heisenberg-level turn to darkness; maybe the final season will surprise me, but it’s impossible to envision her ever killing anyone. What’s unsettling is how vividly Kim's story line portrays cynicism creeping into nobility itself — as if, in modern-day America, the only way to do good is to break a little bad.

Merrick Morton/HBO

I wrote a much shorter version of all this for the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly, and had essentially finished the essay before the terrible killing of George Floyd and the ensuing protests around the globe. These days are shaking the world, and radically shifting conventional perspectives on American law enforcement for the first time in a generation. Multiple cities are considering massive redistribution of police budgets, amidst a broader reconsideration of the actual purpose of policing.

I hope this mood lasts; I don’t know if it will. Just on the level of, like, the cultural-critical response to flesh-and-blood politics, it worries me that most think pieces have focused on cop shows — easy targets popular with people who don’t read think pieces — and not on, like, superhero movies, which are wildly successful, relentlessly dissected, religiously worshipped fables of endearingly good people battling obvious bad guys sans legal restrictions.

People love superhero movies. I love superhero movies, especially when they involve Hellboy fighting a Golden Army. And absolutely no one loves the lawyer-ish type bureaucrats who occasionally pop up to torment superheroes with boring old due process. There were two blockbuster examples of legal overreach into the costumed realm in 2016, with various Washington unfriendlies refusing to let Captain America and Superman fight crime the way they wanna. There’s an emerging pathology here, celebrations of people who get held back from doing the right thing by a society that just won’t shut up and accept their heroism.

That mode of storytelling has trickled down to almost every kind of drama on big screens and small. Certainly, you can spot its influence all over the new Perry Mason, which is actually executive produced by Iron Man himself. Robert Downey Jr. was apparently going play the lead role at one time, and there’s something very comic book-ish in how the series meticulously homages strands of Perry Mason mythology that I can’t believe anyone actually remembers.

It’s disappointingly conventional, a prestige frownfest with an uninvolving central mystery. The Good Fight and Better Call Saul begin from seemingly straightforward genre situations (striving low-budget defenders, chic metropolitan brainiacs) and then add endless complications. Perry Mason moves in the other direction. Early episodes pitch Rhys’ Perry as a hard-drinking, sex-having, murder-y, shellshocked loner. But the debut season brushes away all that complexity, building Rhys back around into Raymond Burr's unabashed virtue. There are ludicrously obvious bad guys, and Stephen Root plays the opposing District Attorney like he's inventing the mustache twirl.

Every trial is an enforced metaphor for conversation. The prosecution and the defense both have their say, always — this, at a time when the conservative mainstream declares any opposition un-American, and a burgeoning liberal philosophy that badly needs a cooler word decries "bothsidesing" as a tactic for fascist normalization. So there is no natural constituency for the TV attorney, who must follow the rules to work within a system everyone hates. The Good Fight and Better Call Saul take root in quarrelscapes of constant dispute, where everyone is able to present a convincing case and nobody ever quite wins an argument. Perry Mason is a simpler tale, but it shares the notion of the TV attorney as a lonely wanderer on the edge of moral chaos. At one point, when the speeches are really kicking in, Perry declares: “If you walk out of that door and think for one second that you’re entering into a nation of laws, you are a complete f—ing idiot.”

It’s a very vogue-y statement anyone watching can relate to, even if you’re currently buzzing off the recent activities of Neil Gorsuch, Hero of the LGBTQ Community. The rich ignore legal codes, or elect someone to rewrite them. Victims of a broken system want to tear it down. Everyone thrills to the adventures of righteous super-billionaires solving problems in a world without red tape. And the fading popularity of the lawyer show reflects a fading belief in law itself.

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