Wednesday, October 8, 2014

ABC's "How to Get Away With Murder": ridiculousness outweighs entertainment

I was very eager to watch the premiere of ABC's new law school/legal drama "How to Get Away With Murder," although I waited until after two episodes had aired before getting around to it. It's from the producers of "Scandal," which has managed to walk the fine line between ridiculousness and entertainment, so that was a point in its favor. In addition, I had once proposed to a law school colleague that we should create a pitch for a TV show that would be like "Beverly Hills 90210" set in law school; I figured this would be similar.
Unfortunately, while I found the pilot episode somewhat entertaining, it was so utterly ridiculous in its depiction of law school and law practice, and so lacking in any likeable characters, that I woke up the next morning and decided to delete the second episode and cancel my TiVo season pass. Here's why:

The premise of the show is that law professor/criminal defense lawyer Annalise Keating teaches basic criminal law in a fictional law school as a real world experiential course, not pie in the sky theory. In addition to teaching Criminal Law 100 (aka "How to Get Away With Murder"), she also runs her own criminal defense practice. The episode jumped back and forth between the start of the semester and the present (four months later), when a group of students are deciding what to do with a dead body and an apparent murder weapon. They are, of course, students in her class, we soon learn. We also learn that Keating is a taskmaster in class, that she teaches using real cases and facts rather than judicial opinions, and that she takes on four students as externs/interns in her defense practice, and the top student there gets the coveted "get out of a final exam" prize. There's more crazy stuff, including the resolution of the case of the week, along with numerous longer arcs.
I'll say this: there weren't any moments that I was bored. Like "Scandal," this is a fast-paced show that throws 1001 things at the wall, and just as you are starting to notice things slide down the wall, more things get thrown up there.
BUT . . . artistic license for the sake of entertainment is one thing; "How to Get Away With Murder"'s depiction of law school and law practice is so absurd that it makes "Boston Legal" look like a trial advocacy course.
* Let's start with the classroom itself. I've been in a lot of law school classrooms, not just where I attended as a student, but at the schools I've taught at or visited for conferences. I've never seen a classroom that looks like the one in this show, with stadium seating and multiple sliding chalkboards. Actually, I have seen such a classroom, just not in law school. More like science undergraduate buildings. This type of set up wouldn't work well for law school because the fold-over mini-desks just aren't big enough to hold big heavy casebooks plus laptops. Granted, this is a nitpick, but I'm just getting started.
* So this is basic criminal law, but Keating is not going to teach like the other professors, because she wants her students to be "real lawyers, that is, trial lawyers." I'll agree that the traditional casebook method of teaching law students has its flaws, and there's certainly a move toward more experiential learning. But criminal law is a foundational, first year course at most law schools. Learning how to discern the law from opinions, for better or worse, is a skill that law students need before they can get to the fancy trial advocacy stuff. It would be like taking a first year medical student and trying to teach him or her to perform surgery without having them study human anatomy first.
* Is it strange that Keating teaches and practices? Well, not so much. It's not clear if she's an adjunct or a tenure-track professor, but that doesn't even matter. Adjuncts have full-time jobs elsewhere, but teach, say, one class a semester, usually a specialized seminar or boutique course. So if Keating is an adjunct, her full-time job is being a criminal defense lawyer. I don't think many law schools would have an adjunct teach a large first year course, though. Tenure track professors are full-time employees of the law school, but if they are admitted to practice, they can take on cases. Harvard's Alan Dershowitz is one of the more famous law professors to practice on the side. So this aspect of the show didn't bother me.
* However . . . she was teaching her class using a real-life case that she was currently defending. On top of that, she exposed her client to her entire class and let them question her as part of a class assignment. NO NO NO NO NO NO!! One clever thing that lawyers did was to create a privilege - meaning a special legal protection - for conversations between themselves and clients. A client can confess the worst sins (as long as they aren't plans for future crimes) to a lawyer, and no one can legally force the lawyer to disclose that confession. This isn't true if, say, the client confesses to his/her mother (unless, of course, the mother is a lawyer and acting as such); a prosecutor would be able to call the mother to the witness stand and ask her about what her child confessed.
* Now, people working under a lawyer who aren't lawyers are also covered by this attorney-client privilege. Thus, when I was practicing law, I could share client confidences with my secretary (necessary if my secretary was going to be editing/formatting documents, etc.) without losing the privilege. But Keating's class isn't working for her! She hadn't even picked the four students to work for her, who arguably would be covered by her privilege. This is awful because anything the client said to the students can be discovered by the prosecutor!
* The shocking twist in this episode was that Keating gets her client acquitted because she forces a police detective on the stand to acknowledge his awareness of previous instances in which the local police department had compromised evidence. Except we know that the police detective is the man with whom Keating is having an affair, and that he's lying on the stand for her. Now, there are a whole host of ethical and legal problems here (maybe the show should be called "How to Get Away With Suborning Perjury"), but from a storytelling perspective, it's a cheap stunt. A relationship like this is bound to come out, and Keating's career is going to come crashing down at once. I suppose she could be the type of person who's seeming in control but who can't help but take absurd risks.
* But that makes her decidedly an anti-hero. Nothing wrong with that. After all, my favorite show of all-time is "24," and Jack Bauer is something of an anti-hero. The problem with this show is that nothing in the pilot made Keating likeable, nor any of her slavish law students, nor anyone else in the show. I don't need them to be good necessarily, but they should make me care. Take Vic Mackey from "The Shield": definitely not a good guy, but strangely likeable. "The Shield" made me root for Mackey to get away with his long list of crimes! With this show, I felt nothing.
The legal tabloid Above the Law also found "How to Get Away With Murder" absurd.

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