In “Hero”, the latest episode of the new Netflix drama Better Call Saul, lawyer Jimmy McGill turns superhero as he rescues a worker dangling precariously from a giant advertising hoarding. The sweaty-palmed drama is just a stunt; Jimmy (better known to Breaking Bad fans as Saul Goodman) is after some free publicity in his ongoing battle with deep-pocketed rivals HHM. “Compared to them I’m just a kiddie lemonade stand trying to compete with Walmart,” he admits to some potential clients.
It’s great to see the brilliant Bob Odenkirk getting top billing in a show that explores the origins of the lugubrious attorney who became so integral to the criminal enterprises of Walter White and Jesse Pinkman. On the evidence of four episodes, I think I’m going to enjoy this show more than its over-hyped predecessor.
With his ingenuity, self-deprecating humour and ability to talk the hind leg off a donkey (handy when Tuco is threatening to snip off his digits) Jimmy is a relatable figure for the average viewer who knows nothing about the law. It’s his innate likeability, combined with his down-at-heel appearance, that makes him the antithesis of most TV attorneys, who look as though they’ve been gelled, waxed and groomed to within an inch of their lives.
Despite Jimmy’s episode 4 heroics in Better Call Saul, TV’s law practitioners are not usually renowned for their acts of derring-do. Even more versatile than the likes of Superman, Spider-Man and Batman, they spin a web of arguments, run rings around the opposition (in court) and destroy evil corporations through their intricate knowledge of the legal system.
Since I was a teenager I’ve loved TV legal dramas, with their irresistible of combination of expensive tailoring, high-stakes cases and verbal pyrotechnics. It all started in the late 70s with The Paper Chase, which followed the trials and tribulations of a bunch of Harvard law students.
James T Hart (James Stephens) and his fellow students were desperate to impress the intimidating, patrician Professor Kingsfield (played by the equally intimidating John Houseman). All I remember now is the Seals and Crofts theme song and the references to Carlill v Carbolic Smoke Ball Co – a contract case that came up during my own legal studies a few years later.
I was a law student at Bristol University in the mid-80s, but by 1986 I had opted for a career in the glamorous and low-paid world of book publishing. That was just around the time that Steven Bochco’s blockbuster legal drama, L.A. Law, was beginning its eight-year run.
The shoulder-pads, big hair and criminal over-use of blusher now seem as over the top as some of the cases tackled by the firm of McKenzie, Brackman, Chaney and Kuzak. (I remember one episode – “On the Toad Again” – that focused on the narcotic secretions of a cane toad.)
I couldn’t get enough of L.A. Law’s resident Lothario/raging egotist Arnold Becker (Corbin Bersen) or the never-ending love triangle involving power-suited Michael (Harry Hamlin) and Victor (Jimmy Smits) and the lovely Grace Van Owen (Susan Dey).
In the 90s I was hooked This Life, the BBC series about a bunch of young London lawyers and barristers, who had to fit law in around their endless bickering, drinking, shagging and drug-taking.
I can’t remember much law being practised in This Life, but I did love those movie-themed episode titles – “The Bi Who Came in From the Cold”, “Diet Hard”, “Apocalypse Wow!”. The talented but tempestuous Anna (Daniela Nardini) was one of the best female characters on TV in that decade.
When The Good Wife began in 2009 I wasn’t that excited. As Alicia Florrick, the humiliated spouse returning to her legal roots, Julianna Margulies just seemed to be giving us a slight variation on aloof nurse Carol Hathaway from ER (another show set in Cook County, Chicago). She’d swapped the philandering Dr Doug Ross (George Clooney) for the philandering and disgraced State’s Attorney Peter Florrick (Chris Noth).
But over the course of five seasons (I’ve just started watching season 6 on More4) The Good Wife has just got better and better. Creators Michelle King and Robert King have succeeded in balancing internecine warfare within Lockhart & Gardner with courtroom shenanigans (quirky judges and salacious cases involving Colin Sweeney), and the “ripped from the headlines” topicality of that NSA storyline from season 5.
All that wit and cleverness would be less satisfying if The Good Wife didn’t also have real emotional depth and complexity. Much of that is down to the nuanced performance of Julianna Margulies, who I had totally underestimated as an actress. Adroitly switching between managing her teenage kids, sparring with her estranged husband and setting up a new law firm, Alicia has become a superwoman who is mistress of her intellect and (most of the time) her emotions.
Just three weeks ago I belatedly started watching Suits on Netflix. Nine days later I’d watched all of the first two series and I’m about to order season 3, though I’ve heard it’s a bit of let-down.
Suits stars Gabriel Macht as Harvey Specter, the ferociously ambitious corporate lawyer and “closer” of deals at the Manhattan firm of Pearson Hardman. Harvey reveres vinyl (records not furniture), collects sports memorabilia and wears more hair product than all those other TV lawyers put together. Less well-groomed is his young associate, Mike Ross (Patrick J Adams), who has an eidetic memory but no law degree.
Much as I love The Good Wife, I think Suits might be the ultimate TV show for viewers who enjoy the vicarious thrill of watching lawyers with an almost superhuman ability to argue their way out of any situation.
Suits also boasts Gina Torres as the imperious Jessica Pearson and one of the great comic creations of 21st-century TV in the monstrous but lovable Louis Litt (played with relish by Rick Hoffman).
If the TV gods ever bring Harvey Specter and Alicia Florrick together their offspring would be a lawyer of truly superheroic proportions.