Law & Order: Trial by Jury Review

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by Chris McEneany Jul 13, 2006 at 12:00 AM

    Created by Dick Wolf as another off-shoot from the phenomenally successful Law & Order show, Trial By Jury is here presented in all its fourteen episodes, including a series crossover show with Law & Order: SVU, making this release the complete series. Taking a fresher approach, and one that utilises multiple viewpoints on either side of a dramatic supreme court case, the show was nevertheless slow to catch on, inevitably forcing the network to throw it out with no chance of bail. Thus, another intelligently written and reassuringly acted set-piece drama bit the televisual dust before it even had a chance of gaining an audience. Of course, this is where the beauty of DVD comes in, securing the show an afterlife and, indeed, a bit of a cult following.

    Now, speaking personally, I had never actually seen the show before getting the chance to review it here and, despite thoroughly enjoying both seasons of Murder One, I have never really had much of an interest in these glossy US legal dramas. Well, I always had a thing for Ally McBeal ... but I guess that's not quite the same thing, is it? There always seemed something slightly stale and hum-drum about watching the wheels of the judicial system turning, the legal battles far less enthralling than, say, the street-justice that would be dished out by my usual heroes. But, the thing is, quality always keeps the attention, even if the subject matter is not exactly your chosen cup of tea. Thus it was that I found myself quite hooked on Trial By Jury, taking in a couple of episodes a night and actually looking forward to my next legal fix. The stories are always bright, engrossing and populated by creeps and scumbags that you just itch to see getting banged up. Yet surprisingly, given some of violent cases and vicious criminals on the stand, the show never seems callous, dark or sombre, keeping things breezing along without delving too deeply into the various depravities committed. Things may get a little tense for our legal eagles, but there's something strangely reassuring about the show that feels vaguely reminiscent of the investigative capers from the 70's and early 80's - the likes of Petrocelli or even Quincy, perhaps. Though Law & Order has a lot more impact, atmosphere and realism.

    Headed up by Bebe Neuwirth (who, to me, will always be Mrs. Frasier Crane from the Cheers days) as Assistant DA Tracey Kibre and her partner (although the pair can occasionally be at loggerheads) Kelly Gaffney, played by Amy Carlson, Trial By Jury makes terrific use of a great ensemble cast. Together with investigators Lennie Briscoe (the familiar Jerry Orbach) and Hector Salazar (Kirk Acevedo) and under the stoic, imperious command of the DA Arthur Branch (the majestically jowelled Fred Dalton Thompson), the team take on difficult cases, compose risky legal broadsides and conduct edgy investigations into some seriously convoluted murders. Neuwirth flirts with being irritating and unattractive, yet steals virtually every scene she is in, taking the lead role in the show with brassy ease. Carlson, though, is equally effective, assured and commanding, and seems to get better looking as the series progresses. That's probably just me desperately seeking out the sexy side of the courtroom that I fondly recall from Ally McBeal. Sadly, Jerry Orbach died of prostate cancer only a couple of episodes into the season, and although he is ably replaced by Scott Cohen as Detective Chris Ravell, his world-weary-yet-easy-going style is sorely missed. Acevedo possesses a cool intensity and a kind of disbelieving gaze that suits his role perfectly. The ostensible runner of the show, he nevertheless adds a gritty integrity to the team.

    A bizarre little thing that I noticed was the absurd length of time that the opening credits run on for. There's one episode in this package in which the titles only end at around the 11.30 minute mark. On a broadcast, this would mean that a commercial break would be just about to start. Another slight niggle is the patented gavel-banging sound effect that heralds an important scene-change, and the location/date and timeline card that punctuates each show as its story progresses. But, having said that, each episode fairly whistles by with a fast and dynamic approach, showcasing some marvellously streamlined scripts and a compelling, non-stop narrative. The dialogue fizzes - even popping in the odd swear-word here and there - and there is never any allowance made for needless waffle or cloying exposition. Characterisation is cleverly constructed and developed despite the brief running time, and the show rarely puts a foot wrong in terms of story arc or denouement. Trial By Jury is a textbook example of breakneck, linear storytelling, with its stylistic whiplash fact-barrages and rapid-fire scenes that pull the rug, confound or intrigue with every passing moment. It is certainly a novelty to see the case from the viewpoints of all those involved, from the victim, the accused, the prosecution and the various alliances formed with each, meaning that every story feels fully rounded and rich in personality, motivation and complexity. Here, we are privy to the machinations of the other counsel and how they are going to play the game - proving, yet again, that there's no-one more devious than a lawyer. We even get brief moments when we can sit in with the jury as they deliberate their verdict, though these sequences can sometimes feel a little tacked-on. The defendants all have major roles, their personalities quite rewardingly fleshed out, enabling us to see their side of things. Even the most blatantly heinous perpetrator has a story to tell and the show niftily gives us access to elements that our heroes in the DA are unaware of. Check out the degree of, ahem, closeness, that some attorneys have with their clients, for instance.

    Some episodes that stand out are Forty-One Shots, about a bullet-riddled cop killer who may be the tip of a far-reaching corruption case, Vigilante, about a paedophile released back into the neighbourhood he once haunted getting his just deserts, Skeleton, about a truly repugnant porn-merchant and the hit he may, or may not have ordered on a former cop, and The Line, which cleverly fuses the fear witnesses have for a murderer when doctored evidence sees him released early from prison, and the diligent efforts to put the harassing brute back behind bars. There are good performances from the guest stars, too. Particularly Candice Bergen who presides over several cases, Angela Lansbury and Alfred Molina in the series cross-over and the great Dennis Farina as a typically tough, bend-the-rules type of cop. But it is Lorraine (Goodfellas) Bracco who is most memorable as a street-trained lawyer who is not above breaking the law, herself, to get her career on the fast-track.

    Top stuff, folks. Well recommended.

    Disc One contains - The Abominable Showman, Forty-One Shots, Vigilante, Truth Or Consequences, some Deleted Scenes and the featurette, A Different Look At Law & Order.

    Disc Two contains Baby Boom, Pattern Of Conduct, Bang & Blame, Skeleton and The Line.

    Disc Three contains Blue Wall, Law & Order: SVU “Night”, Day, Boys Will Be Boys and Eros In The Upper Eighties (which was actually unaired on TV).

    The Rundown

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