We like cop-court-lawyer TV shows at our house. I'm inclined to think that we learn about as much about the justice system as we do on C-Span, except for the stuff about Kenneth Starr and that federal judge who seems to be in Starr's pocket. (We're learning here, too.) If this be treason make the most of it.
The best of the shows, and it has been best for several years, is ``Law and Order.'' My only complaint about that show is that the cast members change too often. The only person there since the beginning is that district attorney who's always so cautious and so critical of his aides. One of the best things about ``Law and Order'' is that it sometimes ends badly. By ``badly'' I mean that someone who is patently guilty gets off. I used to tell my classes, in talking about the free press/fair trial issue, that justice would mean that if someone guilty of a heinous crime was freed that he'd walk out of the courthouse and be struck by lightning. (Is this point of view too conservative?)
``Law and Order'' is rivaled by a show called ``Homicide.'' For years we passed this one by; now we hate to miss it. ``Law and Order'' is set in Manhattan; ``Homicide'' is set in Baltimore. There's one cop, a real redneck, I really dislike. Several of the police are black, and they're mighty good, especially Yaphet Kotto, one of the best actors around. Things get wrapped up neatly on ``Homicide,'' but some of the cops get shot. I often wonder whether cops who get killed are actors who want off the shows.
You know about ``NYPD Blue.'' A show that has both Dennis Franz and Jimmy Smits is bound to be good. Franz plays a tough cop, but one of the most sensitive cops on the tube. I have wearied about that climactic scene in which Jimmy Smits and friend are about to go to bed and once again we see Jimmy's bare butt. The sex and the rough language on this show bother me little, however. Though I haven't been in police stations since my Chicago days 50 years ago I have an idea that cops talk rough, or dirty, maybe. ``NYPD Blue,'' like the other good shows, is topical, issues of the day.
Yes, there have been glimmerings of the O. J. Simpson case, and maybe Ken Starr will show up one of these days. Or Linda Tripp.
A show that came along late in the day is called ``The Practice.'' I don't know how this one is doing in the ratings. Where ``Law and Order'' is about prosecutors this one is about a team of defense lawyers (I prefer the word ``lawyer'' to ``attorney''). Sometimes I don't care for the people being defended, and I have long wondered how you can defend someone who is not only guilty but deserving of the most the system can provide. One week ``The Practice'' and ``Ally McBeal'' teamed up to offer two hours with the same actors. The ``Ally McBeal'' people surely aren't meant to be taken seriously. A bunch of kooks.
In our house little time is spent on situation comedies. We do watch ``Home Improvement,'' but I think the show is going downhill. We like the two hospital shows, but I remember a Calvin Trillin column in which he said that if he needed a hospital in Chicago he'd prefer to be on ``ER'' and not ``Chicago Hope.'' He wouldn't want a scalpel or a sponge left inside him somewhere. Both shows are well-cast. I hope neither ends the way ``St. Elsewhere'' ended, telling us that the entire several years had just been a dream.
(Am I offending some of you who watch only ``Nova'' and whatever is on public television? I repeat: I learn a lot about life in America from the cop/hospital shows. Years ago I had students who gasped when I told a class that I liked ``Hawaii Five-O.'' I guess they thought I should be listening to the Grateful Dead or Jefferson Airplane.'')
I seem to be off the subject. Generally, as I follow news like the Clinton-Starr-Lewinsky case I'm not enamored of lawyers. I remember that Russell Baker once suggested that we send lawyers to the Japanese in exchange for Toyotas.
Are courtrooms as dramatic as they were on ``Perry Mason,'' as Sam Waterston makes them seem today? I don't remember police stations in Chicago as exciting as in the movie ``Detective Story'' of years ago, or ``NYPD Blue'' or ``Homicide.'' I do remember a long day in the Wabash Avenue station waiting for word about the kidnapping of a big racketeer, but there was nothing as much fun as the Criminal Courts Building in ``The Front Page.'' Think how dull our TV shows would be if courtrooms or police stations were like those in ``the real world.''
-- Calder Pickett is a professor emeritus of journalism at Kansas University. His columns appear on Sundays in the Journal-World.