April 12, 2023

Incompetent, irrelevant, and immaterial

In their highly entertaining book Harry and Wally's Favorite TV Shows, authors Harry Castleman and Walter J. Podrazik have this to say about Hamilton Burger, the hapless D.A. and nemesis of Perry Mason: "[W]hile Burger may be 'zero for whatever' against Mason, he's probably batting a thousand against the guilty parties that Perry uncovers.'"

Well, duh. Since most of these parties confess their guilt in open court, in front of dozens of witnesses and court officials, it's hard to believe these cases even come to trial. Perhaps Burger accepts a plea of guilty in return for not seeking the death penalty, but it's not likely he even needs to go this far. Again: standing up and shouting "I did it and I'm glad I did it!" is not the best legal strategy if you intend to plead not guilty, unless you're going for an insanity defense.

I once commented on Twitter that Dr. Richard Kimble would never have been convicted had the prosecutor been Hamilton Burger. I suppose we should be grateful that Kimble was tried in Indiana rather than California; otherwise, we would have been deprived of one of television's great dramas. (I'm not sure the good doctor would agree with this, but then, it just goes to show that realtors are right: location does matter.) The fact remains, however, that Hamilton Burger has to have one of the most dismal records of any prosecutor in history. Only twice during the nine-year run of Perry Mason did Burger manage to defeat Perry, and even then the verdicts didn't stand: in one case the defendant turned out to be an imposter, and in the other Perry's able to free his client despite her attempts to protect someone else. Not only that, but there were six occasions during the series, while Raymond Burr was unable to play Mason due to hospitalization, when guest stars were cast in the role of defense attorney.* Despite the fact that none of these substitutes were specialists in trial law (and one was just a professor), every single one of them facing Burger was able to win by exposing the true criminal. So not only can he not beat Mason, we have no evidence that he can win against anyone else, either. Burger probably would have lost even if he'd been in charge of Stalin's show trials.

*Never let it be said that the show was afraid to aim high: the six replacements for Burr were Bette Davis, Michael Rennie, Hugh O'Brian, Walter Pidgeon, Mike Connors, and Barry Sullivan.

And so we come to the central question, the point of all these ruminations: could it be that Hamilton Burger is not just the worst lawyer ever seen on TV, but the most incompetent character, period? To test this hypothesis, I tried to come up with a short list of television characters who were not just dumb boobs, but true, Darwin Awards-level ineptitude, so bad at their jobs that they posed a threat to the very well-being of their profession, if not the community.

Who in the television universe might his competition be? You don't have to look around very far to find some prime contenders: Gilligan, for example. He doesn't seem to be able to do anything right, and yet he's goodhearted at heart. (If that isn't redundant.) If he were in charge of something more important, he might be the winner—or loser, I suppose we'd have to say—but as it is, there's no evidence that he's responsible for the shipwreck in the first place, and in fact he sometimes winds up inadvertently saving the others from greater harm. So Gilligan is out.

Ted Baxter is pretty bad as a newscaster, but unlike Gilligan he's not aware of his own incompetence, and he's such a buffoon you can't really dislike him, either. Frank Burns was labeled a "competent" surgeon, but he also flunked out of medical school twice, and he's unlikable as well, which counts double points against him—or in his favor, if you will. He's usually prevented from killing innocent patients by the other doctors in the unit, though, which means he doesn't do as much damage as he could. Colonel Klink and Sergeant Schultz are right up there as well; more than one time, Major Hochstetter (no slouch in the incompetence department himself) suggests that every time Klink screws up, he's responsible for taking a hundred years off the thousand-year Reich. We know he can't be that bad, though, or else the Nazis would have been in negative territory by the end of the first season.

The same goes for many of the other characters we might think of: neither Gomer Pyle nor Barney Fife cause the kind of collateral damage that makes them a real contender, and at least in the case of Pyle, one could argue that the real screw-up is the Marine recruiter who thought Pyle would be an addition to the Corps; he probably should have been charged with treason. (You notice Pyle never made it to Vietnam, either.) More recent contenders could include Carrie Mathison of Homeland, who might well be the most inept agent in the history of the CIA (and that's saying something), but she could probably get off on an insanity defense. A compelling case can be made for the double-team effort of Michael Scott and David Brent from, respectively, the American and British versions of The Office, or Conor Roy from Succession, but one could say they're as tragic as they are hopeless, and calling any of their characters the most incompetent ever would just be pouring it on.

But a Perry Mason episode wouldn't be complete without a last-minute surprise, and just when it seems that Hamilton Burger has finally made a case that the jury will buy, Paul Drake comes rushing in and hands a slip of paper to Perry, who opens it up and reveals the name of:

Homer Simpson.

It would be impossible to suggest that anyone is more inept at their job than Homer, and as for causing widespread damage, how does a nuclear core meltdown strike you? Homer also gets bonus points for being a bumbler not only in his job, but at home as well. He's a bad son, father, and husband, and doesn't take such good care of himself. And whereas Burger is sure he's right, right up until the time he's proven wrong, Homer doesn't even have the courage of his faults, His redeeming qualities, and he does have some, merely elevate him from, say, the ninth circle of incompetence to the seventh.

So even when it comes to losing, Burger can't win,* which might well be the ultimate example of his incompetence. Which leads one to wonder when Burger might think to himself, "Maybe it's not you; maybe it's me."  When you consider how the judge almost always rules against his objections, or the number of times he's hoist on his own petard by smugly stipulating to something that Perry later uses to outwit him at a crucial moment in the trial, you begin to wonder how this guy even passed the bar.

*As Yukon Cornelius might say to Rudolph and Hermey, even on the Island of Misfit Toys, he's a misfit.

Given all this, how does Hamilton Burger keep getting elected District Attorney of Los Angeles County? (It is an elective office, after all, with the elected official serving a four-year term.) He has a large department to oversee; according to their website, "the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office is the largest local prosecutorial office in the United States." He also has a myriad number of deputy district attorneys at his disposal (there are 1,000 today; there must have been several hundred in Burger's time). Yet he insists on trying high-profile cases, and even assuming a few gimmies here and there, his overall record must be miserable. How must Joe Friday feel, knowing that virtually his only chance at putting away the bad guy is to get a confession, because if it goes to trial Burger's sure to screw it up? No, Burger's continuing presence in office can only be regarded as one of those mysteries of life. Either that, or crooked politics. (Jake Gittes, call your office!)

William Talman, the actor who so wonderfully portrayed Burger, was philosophical about losing to Mason week after week. "Burger doesn't lose. How can a district attorney lose when he fails to convict an innocent person? Unlike a fist or gun fight, in court you can have a winner without having a loser." That's a noble sentiment to be sure, but perhaps Burger wouldn't "fail to convict" so often if his department did a more thorough investigation before attempting to indict someone with evidence that doesn't even make it through the pretrial hearing. And then there's Burger always kvetching about Mason and his "courtroom tricks" that threaten to turn everything into a circus. Yes, Perry's methodology can be unorthodox at times, but you'd think that Burger would remember that those tricks usually wind up uncovering the real killer. He might at least be thankful that Mason's making his job easier for him. As Gerry Spence, perhaps America's greatest trial lawyer, once said, "I would rather have a mind opened by wonder than one closed by belief." Burger's problem is that he believes in himself too much, when a wondering mind would be a little more open to Mason's tactics—especially when they're always successful.

Now, I don't suppose I'd be doing you much good here if I didn't point out that television often occupies a world other than the one in which we live, and we ought to be grateful for that. No attorney tries 39 cases a year; and no district attorney personally handles every case that comes his way. And if Perry Mason was the world's greatest defense attorney, surely he'd be flying all over the country like Clinton Judd, taking on some of the nation's most notorious cases; at least that way he'd be beating up on a different D.A. each week. Sure, Perry Mason is formulaic, but so is a vaccine, and nobody ever told Jonas Salk they'd like to see him work for once without the formula, and then we'd find out how great he was. Perhaps we're all just better off if we accept the fact that Burger's true purpose in life is to serve as the Washington Generals of the legal profession.

I suppose we've been beating up a little too much here on poor Ham Burger. And maybe we can't convict him of being television's most incompetent character. But at least we can make the case that as far as district attorneys go, he is in a class of his own. Nobody, but nobody, comes close to his perfect record. And if you don't like it, well, sue me. Just make sure you get a better lawyer. TV  


  1. Chief O'Hara on BATMAN is pretty bad, to the point of likely not even being able to write tickets for jaywalking without the titular character's help. Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane has a dismal record on DUKES, but at least we know Boss Hogg likely maneuvers to keep him in office in regards to explaining how he keeps getting re-elected. (My own theory is that Hogg owns or has financial interest in the supplier for Hazzard County's police cars, and that's the shady, real reason he keeps Roscoe around).

    But yeah, Burger takes the cake in this debate.

    1. Ah, good ones! Especially Chief O'Hara - you remember how in the very first episode of Batman, he and Commissioner Gordon are reluctant to call in Batman unless it's absolutely necessary. But by the end, yeah, I think they'd need him for parking meter violations.

      By the way, did you ever wonder how Barbara Gordon can afford a penthouse apartment (with a secret compartment!) on her salary working for the public library? In the grown-up world of Batman, the immediate assumption would be that the Commissioner is involved in some kind of graft, and he's laundering the money through his daughter.

  2. I like your comment about Dr. Kimble being tried Indiana than California. Burger had one of the worst resumes ever. Your contenders for "Best Performance by An Incompetent Character" is spot on and funny. Even Angel Martin could be competent helping Rockford during an undercover sting.

    I recall seeing the Bette Davis episode. Seems she was cast during Burr's medical recovery.

    1. Thanks for the kind comments, Kurt! It's interesting that the producers decided on "guest attorneys" during Burr's recovery, rather than showing reruns. But that's the way it was back then - when Red Skelton or Ed Sullivan were ill, they brought in guest hosts. You have to hand it to Perry Mason, though; when they went for guest stars, they went all-in!


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!