May 15, 2024

If I ran the network, part 2

Recently I kicked off a new feature, "If I Ran the Network," a series of TV concepts that would never have made it to the small screen without network executives screwing them up. If you have similar ideas, please share them in the comments section; if I get enough, I'll use them to put together a complete prime-time lineup for the fictional HBC Network!

I've mentioned this idea before, although not under the name: Scales of Justice.* It's not an original concept as much as it is a refinement on an existing one, but it appeals to my core belief that good television ought to stimulate conversation, to give you insights you might not have had before, to make you think about what you saw and speculate about what might have happened after the episode ended.

*Since this series is based on the premise that you couldn't get it past meddling network executives, it's worth mentioning that the first thing a VP of Programming would do is insist that the protagonist be a Justice Department maverick named Jack Scales. The title sequence each week would include him introducing himself as Scales of Justice. Get it?

Scales of Justice most closely follows Law and Order, in that each episode consists of two parts: the crime and subsequent investigation, and the trial. It's a whodunnit, in the sense that we don't actually see the crime committed; instead, we experience the aftereffects of said crime. In other words, we do not know for sure that the person arrested and put on trial is, in fact, the guilty party.

So far, so good. (I hope.) But where Law and Order suggests that the authority figures (the police and the lawyers in the DA's office) are the protagonists, there is no such guarantee in Scales of Justice. Think of it more as a version of The Wire, or a similar gritty police show, where the authorities are, in the best of circumstances, antiheroes. Sometimes, it will turn out that the police arrested the wrong person. Sometimes, during the course of the investigation, the detectives will make a fatal error, either by questioning the suspect without legal counsel or by discovering evidence without following the proper constitutional procedure, which winds up with the judge throwing the evidence out. Sometimes it will simply be a case where the police focus on one suspect early on, to the exclusion of others, and stop looking for evidence that might be inconvenient to their case. (A favorite accusation that Perry Mason makes against Burger, Tragg, et. al.) You'll like some of these characters more often than you do others, but you'll neither like nor dislike any of them all of the time.

Speaking of Perry Mason, another element I wanted to introduce in Scales of Justice is a defense attorney who becomes a semi-regular, appearing a few times each season (depending on how many episodes we have). For this character, think of someone like Gerry Spence—an attorney who has never lost a criminal case. One of the aspects of Perry Mason that I never thought held water was the idea that Burger was always complaining about Mason's "courtroom theatrics," even though those theatrics had helped clear his client and identify the real killer every single week. You'd think that Burger, having lost to Mason every time they go head-to-head, would start to worry about his case one he found out Perry would be defending the accused. I suspect he'd demand that the homicide detectives double-, triple-, and even quadruple-check everything before he even sought an indictment. (Of course, that's the way it should be anyway, but we'll let it pass for the time being.)

And that's the reason why I wanted to introduce this Mason-like defense attorney. By the time he appears in the first-season finale, the audience is conditioned to know that his client, the accused, is innocent. My intent was that viewers would then start thinking about what they'd seen in the first half of the episode; since we know the accused didn't do it, that means that somewhere along the line, either the police or the DA's office took the wrong fork in the road. What was it? Where did they go wrong? And not only did I want viewers to start thinking this way, I wanted those in charge to have those same thoughts. We must have made a mistake. Where did we go wrong? I've written plenty about how much I dislike many of today's procedurals; what I wanted to accomplish with Scales of Justice, more than anything else, was to knock the ego-driven, cocksure investigators—think Stabler or Gibbs or whatever your favorite procedural might be—off their perch. 

I also wanted these mistakes to have consequences; perhaps one of the detectives is suspended for a few episodes because he's violated the accused's constitutional rights one time too many. Maybe one of the assistant DAs gets sacked because of poor case preparation. But that's not to say that they won't get their rewards for doing a good job; we might see a detective get a promotion, or one of the DAs start appearing more often. At any rate, it's a great threat to hold over the head of cast members: you can be replaced at any time!

Some of you will see the obvious parallels to the 1963 drama Arrest and Trial, in which Ben Gazzara played the college-educated detective who makes the arrest, while Chuck Connors is the defense attorney who tries to get the accused acquitted. We're watching the show right now, and it's pretty good, with fine performances and some very thought-provoking situations. The problem with the concept, however, was that by definition it meant that each week, one of the two protagonists would be proved wrong. 

The producers, I thought, tried some clever ideas to get around this; for instance, Gazzara, being college-educated, is far more inclined than most detectives of the time to consider the environment from which the perp came, as well as other mitigating circumstances. Sometimes, although the evidence forces him to make the arrest, he simply doesn't believe that the suspect is guilty—he has to follow the evidence (as you would on CSI), but his gut tells him that there's more to the story than what the evidence says. 

Likewise, Connors sometimes finds out that his client is actually guilty, and manages to convince them to change their plea. More often, though, we'll see that his ultimate goal is to take advantage of those mitigating circumstances to save his client from a harsher punishment—life in prison, for example, rather than the death penalty. He's constantly working the jury (it's a pleasure to watch him do so), trying to get them to understand that, even though his client may have killed someone, he's not a "murderer." Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.

Despite this, it doesn't quite work, and this is something I wanted to avoid with Scales of Justice. That's why it's important that viewers didn't always like the usual "good guys," or why getting someone off on a technicality might actually be a good thing (if you're ever accused of a crime, you can bet you'd want an attorney committed to giving you the best defense possible). That can be a hard sell, although I think it's more plausible now that antiheroes are more acceptable on television. (Same with The Killer; I wonder if this says something about me?) But if you're worried that audiences want to identify with a protagonist each week, then make it an anthology. I know, I know, anthologies don't work anymore, unless you're doing a six- or eight-episode season, after which you introduce a new cast. But this way each week would truly leave you wondering which way the case would go. I don't like that idea as well as the original, but at least it shows that I'm willing to deal in good faith.

At any rate, it would never be very likely that a series like Scales of Justice would find a place on a fall schedule. As I said, people want to root for the regulars every week. They wouldn't like seeing their favorites from Dick Wolf's stable of shows get spanked for screwing up, or just being a bad human being. Most of all, I don't think they'd like the ambiguity of the whole concept, the idea that policemen can make mistakes (even though they can), that innocent people get put on trial (even though they do), that sometimes we might not even know if the jury came in with the right verdict (even though we can't always be positive). Hence, the title Scales of Justice: sometimes the blindfolded lady's scales tip one way, sometimes the other. In other words, it would look too much like real life to have a chance on television.

I could be wrong, though. People have always liked series featuring defense attorneys: think Perry Mason or Matlock. And we know people like police procedurals. Suppose we combined the two, like peanut butter and chocolate? It could work. Couldn't it? TV  


  1. While Perry Mason never lost a case, Matlock did at least once. In order to get his client to change her plea to guilty, he made it look to the client that he was going to make her friend (who was paying for her defense) look guilty for doing what the client actually did.

    1. Actually, Perry did technically lose a case season seven's The Case of the Deadly Verdict. A very well-written episode, one of the best in the series.

    2. Didn't it drive you crazy, though, that she wouldn't tell Perry the whole story? I like Julie Adams - you'd have to be crazy not to - but if I were Perry, I would have made sure I added an extra zero at the end of the bill, just on general principle! I agree, though, that it was very interesting seeing him trace his actions back, get a closer look at how he really works.

  2. Scales of Justice certainly sound intriguing. As long as it stays within the realm of crime drama, and doesn't venture into an 'issue of the week' like Law and Order.
    I watched L&O in the beginning, and I do remember many well-written episodes, but it lost me when Dick Wolf took to preaching. I'm liberal on many issues, but his style of shoving it down your throat every week just grew tiresome. And for a show that prided itself with stories "ripped from the headlines" and realistic, it was painfully and hopelessly unrealistic. Every villain was either a Wall Street investor, a corporate executive, or a high-priced lawyer.

    1. Don't worry - Scales of Justice will never be an "issue of the week" show! One of the things that puzzles me, especially after having watched the older series like "Judd for the Defense" and "The Defenders," is that the idea of justice itself, and the fight for a fair trial, is so compelling, you don't really need to liven it up by pandering to the masses. I used to think that some of these older legal drams were a little too "bleeding heart," but I can now appreciate that with the best of them, it's more of a debate about the individual's rights. And as Lawrence Preston said once on "The Defenders," sometimes a guilty person has to go free to ensure that an innocent person remains so.

    2. I think the word for those older shows is subtlety. They knew how to tell a story, that might involve a hot-button issue, with style that today's shows lack.

  3. Anyway, I have a few story ideas for dramas:

    A Psychiatrist who is compiling a Volume on Criminal Psychology interviews both a private investigator and a professional diamond thief. Interviewed separately, their stories of crime begin to come together in an unexpected way. The P.I. and the thief have an unexpected connection. Crime Drama.

    A writer desires to capture real stories of real people for publication. To do so he befriends a police detective, a social worker, a clergyman, and a journalist. A sort of ‘Naked City’ for the 21st century. Drama.

    New takes on old shows:

    Joe Mannix II. The son of Joe Mannix and Peggy Fair (c'mon, we all knew they would end up together) opens a detective agency with his older half-brother and ex-cop Toby Fair. Time period: turn of the 21st Century. The much older Toby must train Joe Jr. in the ways of sleuthing in a world vastly different than his father lived in. Crime Drama.

    Young Columbo. The adventures of a brash young detective and future Lieutenant on the New York police force in the mid-1950s. Young Columbo is well groomed and dressed. His superior, Lt. Gilhooley (a character mentioned on Columbo), looks sloppy, wears an oversized raincoat and is constantly chomping on a cigar. The final episode would be a remake of Prescription Murder. Crime Drama.

  4. Speaking of new takes on old shows, I gotta couple of ideas for Hogan's Heroes sequels.


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!