Nobody presents a simultaneous mind-bending and heart-wrenching legal drama better than David E. Kelley. Hailing from his inaugural days on L.A. LAW, through the Emmy winning years of PICKET FENCES, and sailing right on through several decades with THE PRACTICE, ALLY MCBEAL and BOSTON LEGAL, if there was a legal conundrum to be explored, Kelley made sure to highlight it.
In his latest television creation, HARRY’S LAW, starring Kathy Bates as Harriett Korn, a burnt-out attorney seeking a second chance, Kelley has created yet another confection of legal misfits who bring justice into the lives of their clients and are rewarded with a bit of magic in their own lives. Adding to Harry’s firm is the bubbly assistant Jenna Backstrom (Brittany Snow), gentle-spirited attorney Adam Branch (Nathan Corddry), and savvy legal assistant Malcolm Davies (Aml Ameen).
After Harriett is brusquely dispatched by her former firm after being caught with an illegal substance at work, she sets up shop in a run-down, seedy neighborhood in an abandoned shoe shop. It is not the most auspicious start to the new chapter of her legal career, but with a steady supply of legal cases walking in the door from the neighborhood and the added complications of representing the neighborhood enforcer Damien Winslow (Johnny Ray Gill), Harriett’s practice takes off. She represents a young man facing a third-strike for narcotics possession, an elderly woman charged with armed robbery whose defense was that she was starving to death, an innocent man refusing to plead guilty just to get parole, faced disbarment for proclaiming another client guilty before a jury, and agreed to mediate between two rival gangs intent on killing each other.
With Harriett’s hands full, other cases handled by the firm and their sometimes rival Tommy Jefferson (Christopher McDonald) included: a wrongful termination case where a woman violated her employer’s “one child” policy, a young woman is brutally attacked on the street and her attacker is set free after he agreed to testify against a drug lord, a lawsuit is filed against the fast food industry for targeting minorities, and an elderly man is fired for being too old.
Only six episodes in and HARRY’S LAW is racing to tackle some of the thorniest issues in the legal system — but from a decidedly political and social economic viewpoint. Kelley’s forte is skewering the society that creates the laws for which we are forced to abide. Having written all the episodes to date, Kelley’s vision and voice is prevalent through the series. The laws designed to protect us and guarantee justice are the same laws that prevent justice at the same time. Yet laws in a vacuum are meaningless. They must have context and flexibility. It is never black-and-white when there are human beings involved — their motivations have to be considered, as sometimes the laws that are broken are done so for a good reason; and other times, laws are simply ludicrous and need to be changed.
In one of the more heart-wrenching episodes, Kelley recruited Steve Harris (an alum of THE PRACTICE) to play a man who refused to declare his guilt at a parole hearing. He had served his time for a crime, yet the parole bar would not grant him parole unless he confessed to a crime he steadfastly claimed he did not commit. The moral quandary of whether we can force someone to admit guilt for a crime they claim they did not do is a difficult legal issue. But as portrayed in the episode, it felt wrong to make an innocent man admit such a thing in order to secure his freedom again — particularly after he served the full term of his prison sentence. He had already paid a heavy price. Thus, why make him suffer any further indignity than had already been inflicted upon him?
While HARRY’S LAW is back-dropped by absurdity (after all, how many lawyers would actually practice out of a shoe store?!), it is the legal cases that get our attention and haunt us for days afterward. Such as watching a young woman survive a brutal attack only to watch her attacker go free because he cut a deal with the district attorney was horrifying and chilling. There is no justice in releasing criminals simply because they can offer information to capture other criminals. For then who pays the price for their crimes? Is it fair to let criminals walk because of the knowledge they can trade as currency to escape a well-deserved prison sentence? Should habitual offenders be granted a “get out of jail free” card because of who they know and what they may have on them? How do we justify that — let alone explain that to a victim?
Then in this week’s episode, it was not so much the justice system on trial, but our society as a whole. A young man wanted out of a gang so that he could go to college — but in today’s world there is only one way out of a gang and that is in a coffin. So as Harry tried to intervene and secure safe passage for him to leave the gang in peace and pursue a better life, it came at a price. He did not leave in a coffin, but he did leave on a stretcher. There is no easy way out of a gang — there is a blood price that must be paid. However, as Harry sat at his hospital bedside horrified at the brutal beating he had sustained because she had asked for safe passage, the young man thanked her. He knew that without her aid, he would have left in a coffin and he was grateful to be in a hospital bed instead. It is not the easy way out of a gang, but it was a way out. He lived — and he will go to college. But Harry knew that he should not have had to pay that price. In a society where we pride ourselves in our Constitutional rights, under the First Amendment, we are entitled to choose who we associate with — or not associate with. But we cannot guarantee those rights.
Our legal system is flawed in who it does and does not protect. There is a well-known saying, that the justice system does not actually guarantee justice — it only provides a method to try to enforce the laws we have established.
Ask anyone who has had to go through either the criminal justice or the civil justice system as either a defendant or plaintiff, and they will all say the same thing: there is no justice. There may be a result, a compromise, a settlement, but it is rare to find that justice is served.
Thus, HARRY’S LAW is a fascinating reminder of that one crucial lesson: we have a justice system that does not guarantee justice.
If you have not had a chance to discover HARRY’S LAW, I heartily hope that you do. It will make you laugh; it will make you cry; and it will demonstrate that justice is elusive. Justice is not impossible, but it is hard-fought for and, when achieved, there is nothing more satisfying.
HARRY’S LAW airs Monday nights at 10PM on NBC (CityTV in Canada)
Tiffany Vogt is a contributing writer to The TV Addict. She has a great love for television and firmly believes that entertainment is a world of wondrous adventures that deserves to be shared and explored – she invites you to join her. Please feel free to contact Tiffany at Tiffany_Vogt_2000@yahoo.com or follow her at on Twitter (@TVWatchtower). Tiffany also writes as a columnist for NiceGirlsTV.