Courtroom dramas have long been one of the most consistently popular of all genres on American television. From Perry Mason to the fifteen different varieties of Law & Order, Americans seem to love the legal system being played out on TV. (And that’s not even including the O.J. Simpson trial.) The only problem is that in the wild majority of cases, most legal dramas have an irritating quality of avoiding the complexities of ambiguity. While most legal dramas today are not nearly as cut and dried and black and white as Perry Mason, even Law & Order often devolves into predictability with dualistic divergence between the powers of good and evil.
Admittedly, Law & Order does try to introduce ambiguous elements, but ultimately the bad guy is almost always caught and punished and the reasons behind the crime are easily explained. There has really only been one show in American history that is deserving of being called the greatest legal drama in television history and that is precisely because Picket Fences chose to take the path less traveled by insisting upon its viewers radical idea that few things in life are quite what they appear to be.
From a strictly utilitarian point of view, an analysis of why Picket Fences is the greatest legal drama in American television history must begin with attorney Douglas Wambaugh, played by the great Fyvush Finkel. Wambaugh was, as he liked to point out, a character. He was larger than life and comedic. On any other show besides Picket Fences, Douglas Wambaugh would have been a target of satire, a lousy lawyer played for laughs. The twist that David E. Kelley, the creator of Picket Fences, gave was to have this object of scorn and laughter actually possess a far, far greater legal mind than Harriett Miers, the personal attorney of George W. Bush that he nominated to the Supreme Court. (Or even a far greater legal mind than Antonin Scalia, for that matter.) The juxtaposition of unexpected depths to a man who took himself far less seriously than he took the law was symbolic of the magnificent legal debates that were regular plotlines woven into Picket Fences.
I have never seen a legal drama on American television, or even British television, that so fully presented both sides to a controversial subject. The thing I miss most about Picket Fences, aside from the fact that this TV show actually pitted the amazing Don Cheadle against the amazing Fyvush Finkel in the courtroom, was how many controversial topics became fodder for the legal system. Everything from abortion to cryonics (prefiguring the Ted Williams debate by several years) to medical ethics (prefiguring George W. Bush’s inexplicable rejection of the concept of sparing human misery simply so he could gain the support of ultra-right wing maniacs who opposed stem cell research for no discernible reason) wound up debate in front of Judge Bone. And, unlike me, David E. Kelley and the other writers, but mostly Kelley, presented the other side of what may seem an obvious choice in such starkly intelligent terms that even when you fervently believe one way, you often found yourself coming to a fork in the road with a Gordian Knot hanging over a Sword of Damocles.
Remember the beloved Korean War show MASH? Well, I always had problems with calling MASH a great show because it was fervent in its desire to be one-sided. MASH came down basically to a single dichotomy: If you agreed with Hawkeye, you were smart; if you disagreed you were an idiot. Even now that I have come to agree with Hawkeye on almost all things, I still have a problem with that weighting of the issue. The amazing thing about the legal issues that came into the courtroom and were argued over by Finkel’s and Cheadle’s characters was that you really, truly never knew which way Judge Bone was going to rule and even if he ruled against your personal values, you would fully understand his reasoning. It was a show that pitted deeply held liberal and conservative values and found common ground. Try doing that in Congress or the White House. (Unless, of course, you are taking about making money, but that isn’t a value at all, is it?)
I remember with clarity throughout one particular episode of Picket Fences that presented a thorny social issue with only the barest minimum of courtroom scenes. And that aspect of taking the socio-legal concept out of the courtroom and into real life was also what makes this show the greatest legal show in American television history. The show was infamous for its rather bizarre crimes and in this case the criminal was a serial bather. He would break into the houses of people while they were gone and take a bath and masturbate into the panties of a young female member of the family. All signs pointed squarely at Frank the Potato Man, a weird outcast who lived in a shack and had a habit of loitering on the other side of the school fence while young females were around.
Picket Fences is sorely missed in this day and age when ambiguity and the destruction of the myths of good and evil and black and white are under constant assault by authoritarian leadership that thrives on create false assumptions engendered by polar opposites.