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What’s New in Criminal Justice-Themed TV Shows for Fall, 2014

 

Two new television shows and a second season for a third series highlight the fall season for shows with a criminal justice theme.

The gaudiest of the new shows is “How to Get Away with Murder,” an ABC-TV hour-long show that debuted on Thursday, September 25 at 10:00 pm (EDT). This show has many of the ingredients that predestine it as a hit: sex, murder, sex, attractive characters, and courtroom drama. Oh, did I mention that it is sexy?

Starring Viola Davis (she played a role in the popular movie “The Help”) as a college professor teaching Criminal Law 101, she is also a working defense attorney, a wife, and a demanding law school instructor.

The major crime in the initial episode wasn’t a murder, although through flashbacks we learn a murder has taken place and some of her students are involved. But we don’t know much of this background murder; we don’t know who the victim is, who did it, or why. But the main crime is a woman accused of trying to kill her husband, and Annalise Keating (Viola Davis’ character) is defending this woman. To give her students practical experience, she involves them all in the case – and they provide their help, with most trying to curry favor with her by going to whatever lengths they can to demonstrate how bright and talented they are.

For the viewer looking for a crime show diversion which will very likely be consistently entertaining with enough sex thrown in to also keep you titillated, this will be a winner.

But as a criminal justice instructor who rates TV crime and legal shows based on whether students will learn something about criminal justice and the law, I give “How to Get Away with Murder” 3 out of 5 bullets. It may provide students the impression that defense attorneys will do anything (including lying, cheating, and even stealing evidence) to win a case (they don’t really do this in real life, do they?). To its credit, the first episode of the show, which is written by Peter Nowalk and produced by Shonda Rhimes, did use the terms actus reus and mens rea – terms that most criminal justice and law students should definitely get to know.

 

The other new show is “The Mysteries of Laura,” which began on NBC at 8:00 pm (EDT) on September 17. After watching the first two episodes, I would rate this new series as a Two-Bullet Show. There are several reasons for the low rating.

First, although Laura Diamond (played nicely by Debra Messing) is a homicide detective, the show seems to center more on her dysfunctional family life rather than on the police procedures we often expect.

Second, I understand that in order to make a police procedural interesting for cop-show-jaded viewers there has to be quirky characters, this series tries too hard. Laura Diamond is a working mother in the midst of a surprisingly amiable divorce (the divorce becomes final in the second episode). Her husband was also a homicide detective who becomes her new boss in the second show. They have young twin boys who are terrors, getting booted out of a pre-kindergarten for their behavioral antics and then being denied entrance into an exclusive private school. Their father, Jake, played by Josh Lucas, is a laid-back, lenient father who always sees the positive in the boys’ unruly behavior.

Third, the procedures Laura uses to solve crimes is based less on good police procedure and more on hunches and guesses.

Finally, Laura is fast on the draw, using her gun to get bad guys and being seemingly unfazed when she shoots someone. It’s all very funny and entertaining, but criminal justice students won’t learn anything here.

Then there is “Chicago P.D.,” now in its second season (as of September 24), although it only premiered in January, 2014 with its first series of episodes. It began life back then as a Dick Wolf (along with Matt Olmstead as co-creator) spin-off from “Chicago Fire.” While there some cross-over episodes with some “Chicago Fire” cast members, “Chicago P.D.” has developed a life and style of its own.

While this style may attract viewers and keep those viewers hooked for the full hour of each episode, it doesn’t have the charm or criminal justice attractiveness of any of the “Law & Order” series. Part of the problem is the main character, Sgt. Hank Voight (played in a menacing way by Jason Beghe). He originally showed up in “Chicago Fire” as a threatening, dirty cop. He was not meant to be liked, but he was presumably redeemed – to make him more appealing for the spin-off? – by the revelation that he was working undercover for IA. In “Chicago P.D.” he is head of an Intelligence Unit in the Chicago Police Department whose job it is to deal with major street crime.

Voight still remains an enigma to the viewer. Is he still working for IA? Is he really a corrupt cop? Or is that a persona he is willing to continue to play in order to catch really dirty cops and take down criminals?

Surrounded by a cast of young uniformed officers, some of whom are loyal to Voight and others who don’t respect him, Voight and his unit get involved in dangerous work that involves gun play, car crashes, and assorted violence and mayhem. The question though hangs ominously over each episode: Is Voight a good cop or a bad cop?

“Chicago P.D.” gets four Bullets. It’s good entertainment and criminal justice students might just learn how not to run an intelligence unit.

 

 

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