Today’s true-life plot lines make TV’s scripted courtroom shows look tame

Lorraine Ali
Los Angeles Times


Bradley Whitford as Frank Maddox in a 2014 episode of "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit."

Perry Mason and Matlock were once America’s most recognizable “lawyers” thanks to the dramatic crimes and cases they brought into American living rooms each week.

Today it’s hard to imagine any scripted series that’s able to compete with the courthouse drama and cast of characters that reality has handed us in the Trump era.

Last night, loosely linked plot lines converged into one bad narrative for President Trump when his former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, pleaded guilty to eight counts of tax and bank fraud and campaign finance violations and said he’d paid out hush money to a Playboy bunny and a porn star in 2016 “at the direction of a candidate for federal office.”

In another courtroom, former Trump campaign advisor Paul Manafort was found guilty of eight counts of tax and bank fraud after a trial in which America learned there was such a thing as a $15,000 ostrich skin jacket.

The national and global implications of Manafort’s and Cohen’s cases are bigger and in many ways more unbelievable than the fictional fare showrunners or creators push to the limits each new season.

Both cases embody the most theatrical, salacious and bottom-feeding aspects of the network courthouse genre: from the prosecutor-attorney rivalries of “Law & Order” to “Judge Judy’s” knack for bending the law into a sadistic spectacle to the voyeuristic thrill of Court TV to the manufactured indignation of Nancy Grace.

The Mueller, Trump and Associates show also has a colorful cast of characters with theatrical flair, like Tony Soprano’s crew or Olivia Pope’s pals, but with comedic hints of “Night Court” or “SNL.” There’s “turncoat” Cohen, “hide the money in Kyrgyzstan” Manafort, “truth isn’t truth” Rudy Giuliani, his nemesis the porn-star attorney and presidential hopeful Michael Avenatti. And for comic relief as we watched the country fall apart in real time, the wise-cracking U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III.

When former Manafort aide Rick Gates testified before the judge that “Mr. Manafort was very good about keeping track of the money.” The judge snarked, “Not the money you stole from him. So he didn’t do it that closely.”

Moments such as these have attracted the kind of national attention that judicial-minded series like “L.A. Law” used to before cable networks and streaming services challenged traditional judge-and-jury procedurals with tales of vampires, dragons and handmaids.

Watergate of course grabbed headlines and the top of every news hour, but that national crisis unfolded on the Senate floor, for the most part, not in courtrooms that look like they haven’t changed since Atticus Finch argued his case before a judge and jury.

Manafort and Cohen weren’t covered gavel to gavel in the courtroom like last century’s so-called Trial of the Century, with its celebrity defendant O.J. Simpson, bloody glove and close-ups of Marcia Clark’s unfortunate perm. But every machination of their legal woes has been broadcast across small-screen America thanks to a billion legal experts and analysts who stepped in to fill the gaps, 24/7, on cable, podcasts, YouTube channels, the radio. And did we mention cable news?

A rotating roster of former DAs, defense lawyers, law professors and Watergate-era legal minds were there to explain the difference between collusion and conspiracy, impeachable behavior versus criminal acts. They have replaced the terrorism experts in high demand five years ago when Islamic State was at its apex, or the aviation experts called upon after Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared.

Lawrence M. Noble, the former general counsel of the Federal Election Commission, said Cohen’s plea is the first time in nearly 50 years that a president has been accused of being a part of a campaign finance crime. Watergate prosecutor Jill Wine-Banks went a step further Wednesday and said the guilty plea is grounds for Trump’s impeachment.

Ally McBeal would have certainly been out of her depth in this crowd.

The Tuesday finales of the Mueller, Trump and Associates shows did what successful series TV should: end the season with at least one bold, satisfying conclusion but leave enough big unanswered questions (and cliffhanger tension) to keep audiences wanting more. And clearly, these are not limited series.

Cohen’s lawyer, Lanny Davis, is already teasing the saga’s next potential plot line in tweets such as this one: “Today (Cohen) stood up and testified under oath that Donald Trump directed him to commit a crime by making payments to two women for the principal purpose of influencing an election. If those payments were a crime for Michael Cohen, then why wouldn’t they be a crime for Donald Trump?”

Surely one of the cutthroat attorneys from “House of Cards,” or legal professor Annalise Keating on “How to Get Away With Murder” would have an eviscerating retort, but it would take a team of writers months to come up with that dialogue. By that time, we may be wondering what happened to Giuliani now that Mike Pence is in charge and Avenatti is the Democratic front runner for 2020.

TV writers working on new versions of the lawyer drama will also have a hard time selling “deep-state” narratives that portray Washington as a dizzying labyrinth of precision operations and brilliant Machiavellian minds.

Cohen was clumsy enough to tape conversations that might implicate him and his client. Manafort couldn’t keep his “I was or wasn’t in Russia” timelines straight. Not exactly the stuff of a “Mr. Robot”-style conspiracy drama.

If the past couple months are any indication, reality will trump fiction once again when Manafort stars in another courtroom drama. He’s slated to go on trial in September for charges of conspiracy to defraud the U.S., failing to register as a foreign agent, money laundering and witness tampering. But the biggest legal drama may lay ahead — possible indictments from Robert S. Mueller III’s Russia probe.