Why TV Shows About the Supreme Court Tank

This post first appeared on Appellate Daily.

ABC has tried.  CBS has tried.  Now, NBC is trying-to launch a drama series about the Supreme Court, that is.  The ABC and CBS experiments failed and the latest, NBC's Outlaw, looks doomed as well.  Why don't Supreme Court TV shows work?

The Supreme Court
The Supreme Court has some very devoted fans.  For example, SCOTUSblog recently estimated that it has around 15,000 daily readers and many more, on certain days.  However, as puzzling (or borderline sacrilegious) as this may seem to the very devoted, most Americans are not highly interested in or knowledgeable about the Supreme Court.  A recent survey found that two-thirds of Americans cannot name a single justice and only one percent could name all nine.  It is hard to base a TV series around a subject with numbers like that.

Think about the centerpiece of most "law" movies.  To Kill a MockingbirdJudgment at NurembergA Few Good Men?  Trial.  Trial.  Trial.  Or most "law" TV shows.  Perry MasonLaw & OrderJudge Judy?  The same.  With some occasional exceptions (e.g., Gideon's Trumpet, a TV movie starring Henry Fonda, which recreates oral argument in the landmark Supreme Court appeal, Gideon v. Wainwright), law-related entertainment is not about appeals.  And this makes sense, in some ways.

Trials, particularly jury trials, involve more storytelling/theater than seemingly bookish appeals and their briefs.  It is easier to create theater from theater, i.e., to make a trial accessible to viewers.  Personally, I would love to see a series plumb deeper and be knowledgeable enough to show the drama in appeals, because it is there.  An appellate argument is a bullfight, with multiple bulls.

Having said all this, NBC's Outlaw, at least based on the pilot, is not really about the Supreme Court.  The Court is merely a bio bit for the main character to show how magnanimous he is: a justice giving up his seat to represent the little guy.  Any Supreme Court/appeals element therefore cannot be blamed for the show's probable failure.  That distinction belongs to the writing, including the pilot's stock characters, unrealistic dialogue, and predictable "surprise" ending.  To paraphrase a recent Washington Post review, Outlaw is eye-rollingly bad.  (The ABC and CBS dramas also got poor reviews.)  Hopefully, the fourth time will be the charm.

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