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NBC Overturns Laws of Reality in Upcoming "Outlaw" Legal Drama
August 22, 2010  | By Tom Brinkmoeller
Outlaw-Jimmy-Smits-top.jpgIf you were watching a TV drama about baseball where the batter got a single and ran to third base -- not to first -- and the story made that seem normal, would you wonder if the show's producers knew very much about the sport?

Or if you were watching a how-to program and the host secured a home's structural lumber with duct tape, would you think of that host as an expert?

Hope not.

So don't look for too many factual insights into the country's top court when Outlaw premieres this fall on NBC...

In the series, which premieres Friday, Sept. 24 at 10 p.m. ET, Jimmy Smits plays Cyrus Garza, a U.S. Supreme Court justice -- for about five minutes -- in this under-researched, error-heavy hour-long drama. This is not Bob Woodward's deeply researched and reported look inside the country's top court for The Brethren. This is one sloppy mistake after another, presented in the belief viewers will take as accurate anything the networks feed them.


In its initial minutes on the air, Justice Garza is escorted from a casino for counting cards (and no one in the crowded room apparently has recognized his as one of the nine faces in the court's often-used formal photo). Cut to him leaving the Supreme Court Building by the front door and walking down the front steps, unnoticed and unprotected, to get into a senator's car that is waiting for him. The senator, unhappy because the justice has strayed from the conservative ways that got him confirmed, tells him he will be impeached unless he steers to the right again. The grounds for blackmail: The justice's six-figure gambling debts will be made public, and he'll be dead in the water.

Cut to the courtroom, where all nine justices are seated because of a four-four tie on a request to delay a death sentence. Smits' Garza breaks the tie in favor of the prisoner. The senator leaves the room in anger, so he misses it when the justice announces he's resigning from the court. He wants to change the system, he explains.

Cut to the former justice offered a job with a power law firm. His first case is defending the prisoner whose execution he voted to delay. The viewer is now asked to get on board with the idea that the poor will be made better at the expense of the rich.

Mel Brooks' Robin Hood: Men in Tights had a better grasp on reality.

"Under no circumstances would the Smits character be allowed to accept a case on which he had ruled as a judge," said Stephen Gillers, a faculty member at the New York University School of Law and an expert on legal ethics. "However, if all parties to the proceeding agreed to let him do so, in writing, he could. The chances of getting consent from both sides are quite low."


That opinion is shared even more strongly by Steven Lubet, also an legal-ethics authority and a faculty member of the Northwestern University School of Law:

"The former justice could not take the case. Under Rule 1.12 of the Model Rules of Professional Conduct (some version of which has been adopted in virtually every state), a former judge may not 'represent anyone in connection with a matter in which [he] participated personally and substantially as a judge.' Casting a deciding vote would be personal and substantial, therefore the former justice could not take the case in private practice."

Lubet thinks a blackmail threat from a senator to a justice "would never happen. Senators have often threatened to impeach justices... But not face-to-face in order to influence future judicial rulings. Senators do, of course, talk with judges from time to time, but not coercively."

The show offers "no more insight into the Supreme Court than Perry Mason did into the trial system," said LeRoy Pernell, dean of Florida A&M University's College of Law. "It's fantasy. It's not based on reality."

Real life also suffers in the portrayal of the motives the justice cites for stepping down, Dean Pernell added: "What better place to change the system than the Supreme Court?"

Those are some of the major flubs that are made early on in the first episode. Smaller ones accumulate as the hour continues, but most of them are the same courtroom-theatric dramatic license TV has used for decades. It's unlikely the series' dramatic hook -- from Supreme Court to Superman -- will disappear in subsequent stories, so there's no telling in which ways reality will be distorted. Why would NBC present a drama such as this as an accurate reflection of American law?

An NBC spokesperson relayed a statement that showed no worry over the factual errors: "While we work closely with legal consultants, as with most television programs, our writers use dramatic license to enhance the viewing experience. This is clearly not a documentary, but a fictional work, and we're confident that viewers recognize this."

The response didn't surprise one TV observer, who explained that facts are no more than clay lumps that get molded into TV-convenient forms when money is at stake.

"Clearly, in this case, they don't give a ----," explained one award-winning writer-director-producer, who has been associated with major television series for decades, who declined to speak for attribution."You're forgetting this is just a dopey television show, where everyone disregards reality for entertainment."

Disregarding is what discriminating viewers, most likely, will do when this series shows up. Its weak concept is trumped only by its utter ignorance of the subject.




Nathan said:

I've said it before and I'm sure this time won't be the last. The problem isn't that the people making television are stupid. The problem is that the people making television think we're stupid.

Comment posted on August 22, 2010 10:43 PM

Rachel said:

I have no problem with this. Shows do it all the time. Look at Grey's Anatomy. That stupid show has won Emmys, for crying out loud. As a medical person, I can tell you it is crap. I personally think Smits can pull it off - sounds like it's supposed to be a "feel good" scenario, which is needed right now.

Comment posted on August 23, 2010 8:53 AM

LilOle said:

I agree with Nathan, but would add that People making television don't care if we're stupid and stay that way.

Comment posted on August 25, 2010 8:54 AM
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