: Law And Justice On The Small Screen

Law And Justice On The Small Screen

Gill Boehringer

Law-and-justice-screen-cover-150pxPeter Robson and Jessica Silbey (eds);

Hart Publishing, 2012; 472 pp; $55.00 (paperback)

The study of law in popular culture is booming. Surprisingly, while interdisciplinary studies of law in the cinema are common in academic books and journals, attention to law in TV representations have been relatively scarce. (Although the Alternative Law Journal has, over the years, tended to favour reviews of the latter.) Given that TV now is probably the major source of our day-to-day understanding of the world outside, not least law and the legal system, the paucity of substantial research into the meaning and effect of TV portrayals of legal actors and institutions is surprising.

Now the deficit is being made up, with the publication of Law and Justice on the Small Screen. The editors, leading scholars of both film and TV, and the law, have put together an excellent collection of 21 original chapters by authors from half a dozen countries (including two from Australia) working interdisciplinarily to capture the importance of TV in shaping understandings of law in cultures around the globe. The editors have also provided a useful short introduction with an overview of the place of film and TV studies in the broader field of law in popular culture.

I was reading the book at the time of the school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut. As I read a number of discussions of American TV portrayals of law and justice in this collection, including: ‘internal colonialism’ on the frontier; the various programs and methods of production and representation of law on the small screen; the likely meanings of violence, racial and gendered violence in particular, taken by the audiences; vigilantism in the face of the apparent inability of law enforcers to fight crime on the streets successfully; the justification of torture and contempt for the law; and the tropes of individualism and DIY problem-solving-by-gunfire which flood out of the box in American lounge rooms, I was able to gain a deeper understanding of the profound commitment to, and persistent resort to, gun violence in the USA. Further, a number of the authors impressed me in providing a more nuanced understanding of TV representations of a number of contemporary social problems, such as violence against women, racism and homophobia, in Australia and beyond.

In what one author claims is a first, the reader is treated to a study of the production of a police drama series from inside the writers’ room (The Bridge, a Canadian-American joint project). In her discussion, Anita Lam explains her choice of an ethnographic perspective to achieve two aims: to avoid the macro level, over-generalised approach of political economy and to discover the specific details of the complex and dynamic process of writing scripts which will satisfy writers, producers, legal and insurance experts, corporate executives, marketing specialists and others. (I was reminded of Dworkin’s ‘chain novel’.)Thus, rather than being written to a predetermined ideological position, the show was, in its final form, crafted in struggle. Lam demonstrates the complex, dynamic and sometimes contradictory process whereby TV serials are completed and with that, the ideological messages emerge. She cautions against any kind of essentialist/reductionist understanding of how ideology is produced and reminds us that one cannot simply ‘read off’ the specific ideological content from the capitalist nature of our society.

An important contribution from an Australian scholar, Cassandra Sharp, deals with the value of ethnographic research methodology. That is, qualitative research in which the aim is to understand the manner in which the TV ‘texts’ are interpreted. In this mode, the effects of TV portrayals are understood to be layered into a complex cultural background. Thus the primary focus is on the viewers, as part of an interpretive community, rather than on the text. This ‘constructionist’ approach seems particularly useful when considering the gun violence in the USA to which I have referred.

The chapter by Rebecca Johnson, one of the most interesting and insightful, ‘Television, Pleasure and the Empire of Force: Interrogating Law and Affect in Deadwood’ is a brilliant example of interpretive analysis of text, culture and the American community, shaped by and shaping TV portrayals of violence, internal colonialism, race and the invitation to act out the ‘Dirty Harry’ role (or even the Dexter role, discussed by Angus Nurse in ‘Decoding the Dark Passenger: The Serial Killer as a Force for Justice. Adapting Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter for the Small Screen’. See also ‘ “McNutty” on the Small Screen: Improvised Legality and the Irish-American Cop in HBO’s The Wire’ by Sara Ramshaw.)

In a thoughtful discussion of quantitative research methods used in studies into the impact of depictions of law on the small screen, Kimberlianne Podlas provides a cautionary note: while there appear to be long-term effects of watching law on the TV, they are very difficult to pin down empirically. And some famous ‘effects’ turn out to be more myth than reality, such as the so-called ’CSI effect’ where jurors are said to require forensic evidence of guilt before convicting criminal defendants, especially in murder trials, or the ‘Perry Mason Syndrome’ where defence lawyers complain that they have to prove their clients’ innocence, as did the famed TV-lawyer, week after week.

On the other hand, Annette Houlihan, another Australian contributor, argues that the portrayal of ‘stranger danger’, particularly in the context of brutal killings by ‘sadistic serial killers’ has several negative effects. First, of masking the much higher degree of danger from non-strangers, and second, interestingly, in that the appellation ‘sadistic’ distorts the nature of sadism in its erotic, consensual role in sado-masochism. This is a very thoughtful piece indeed.

This is an important book for legal academics, students and practitioners who wish to explore the diverse impacts and ‘meanings’ of TV portrayals of legal matters in our society. More than that, the volume provides excellent teaching and learning material, raising many jurisprudential issues in the context of narratives discussed by the authors, be it from Star Trek (the meaning of human life), 24 (is torture ever justified?) or Deadwood (‘civilisation’ and colonialism, terra nullius and competing understandings of law). One could easily use the volume as the primary materials for courses in law and popular culture, as well as a seminar course in jurisprudence. The latter would find invaluable material in the ‘Reality Law TV’ section, perhaps especially the three chapters on ‘TV judges’ such as the widely watched Judge Judy. Many of the chapters would be useful in a range of other courses, most obviously law and the media, criminal law, criminology, the legal profession and ‘legal’ ethics.


Given the interest in this important field in many different disciplines in Australian universities, perhaps we shall soon see the vast amount of ‘law and order’ programming on Australian channels, both free-to-air and cable, subjected to sustained and comprehensive analysis. Perhaps the Alternative Law Journal should consider (co)sponsoring a conference which would, no doubt, evoke a diversity of papers which could make an important contribution to the field and provide material for a special issue of the journal?

GILL BOEHRINGER is an honorary associate, School of Law, Macquarie University.

(2013) 38(1) AltLJ 65
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