by Peter Robson and Jessica Silbey (eds.). Oxford: Hart Publishing, 2012. 472pp. Paperback $55.00. ISBN: 9781849462693.

Reviewed by Nicholas LaRowe, Department of Political Science and Public Administration, University of Southern Indiana.


Law and Justice on the Small Screen (hereafter Law and Justice) is an edited volume focusing on television shows related in some way to “law and justice.” By “in some way” I mean that matters of law and justice are so fundamental to the human experience that we may find them in nearly every corner of the televised universe. The study of some shows (e.g. Judge Judy) was inevitable. Other times television explores the boundaries of who gets what rights and the grounds on which we award them even far removed from our time – and planet!

The volume is almost entirely qualitative in nature, as the primary approach is textual analysis and interpretation. Much of the work in this volume comes from paradigms and theoretical approaches used primarily in the humanities, approaches with which this reviewer is unacquainted, so while I cannot comment with the aptness of one steeped in feminism, postcolonialism, or critical discourse analysis I can offer the impressions of the “visitor from Mars” – which in this case is a quantitatively oriented political scientist. For reasons of style and space not every author or chapter is explicitly discussed, though I strive to incorporate as many as possible, even if that means a mere reference or allusion.

Comprised of twenty-one chapters, the book is organized under three sections: methodological questions, studies of different genres, and studies of individual shows and the issues of law and justice they explore.

In the first section of the book many of the chapters focus on gaps in scholarship in places we often find them: where subtle assumptions and not inquiry, exist. Anita Lam points out that while we often simply assume that a show’s message is the coherent product of a single author, it is actually contingent and has multiple sources. And Cassandra Sharp deconstructs another assumption: that audiences passively accept the messages portrayed, ignoring the fact that viewers play an active role in interpretation and meaning-making.

In the first half of the second section the focus shifts from methodology to genre, with Taunya Banks investigating what the portrayal of female heroes means for the state of feminism and society’s views of women. Christine Corcos probes the reason for the popularity of psychic detectives and what it may mean; and Tung Yin suggests that lawyers are given a creative short shrift in terrorism thrillers.

Next, reality law television receives its own subsection as Freya Kodar notes the neoliberal lessons imparted by the game-reality show Til Debt do us Part; Stefan [*2] Machura documents how competitive pressures resulted in a “race to the bottom” for content in German reality courtroom television. Analyzing Judge Judy, Marilyn Terzic notes, via message design approach, how the careful crafting of the program has contributed to its success; and Mark Tunick takes on an important question we’d rather not ask: whether To Catch a Predator is entrapment and in fact unfair to the unwitting protagonists we easily detest.

Finally, the focus narrows to individual television programs with an emphasis on the international and the new. Most of the shows in this section are from outside of the United States, the themes and issues are current, and authors are new to the field of “law and popular culture”. Two chapters, by Ummni Khan and Jennifer Schulz, respectively, focus on the Canadian justice system. Interestingly, both deal to an extent with a continuous Canadian conundrum: how Canadians distinguish and understand themselves, and whether their identity is anything more than “non-American”. Sara Ramshaw focuses on the aspirations of The Wire to fundamentally jar viewers, blurring lines between good and evil, legal and illicit, and moral and immoral, and to do so initially through officer McNulty (whose Irish heritage is intentional and significant). And Angus Nurse addresses the innovative paradox of Dexter in which the hero is a serial killer and yet somehow also a force for justice.

Among this volume’s strengths is the breadth of shows and topics covered – impressing upon us the fact that law and justice are inescapable aspect of the human experience, a fact that does not vary by time, space, or culture.

Fundamentally, law seems to be an ineradicable part of human nature, whether floating through space in the far future, or in the Hobbesian state of nature that was westward expansion in 19th century America, in settlement where law and order only appeared to be absent. Lief Carter and Michael McCann show that far from earth and the 21st century the crew of Enterprise grapples with ancient questions regarding human nature and what constitutes just treatment. In Rebecca Johnson’s chapter on Deadwood we see that human interaction is still structured by norms and codes, even when government is absent.

Also illustrated is the truth that law can usefully be interpreted as an expression of social values, norms, and priorities, and that arguments about the law are often fundamentally moral and philosophical arguments. Shortly after the 9/11 attacks a raw and insecure America was more sympathetic to an ancient unwritten maxim, – “salus populi suprema lex est,” – than its written fundamental law, – the Constitution. Viewers of 24, at least, had weighed in on the debate over torture and had embraced the Machiavellian argument that necessity, not idealism, should drive America’s antiterrorism policy.

Indeed often merely noting that a debate exists gives us important insights into society. Why would a drama about divorce lawyers ever capture the attention of a nation? Because divorce laws served as an efficient proxy for several interconnected debates in post-Franco Spain: the importance of marriage as a social institution, a shifting balance of power between the sexes, and [*3] the proper weight of the Catholic church in society (see chapter 16: Television Divorce in post-Franco Spain: Anillos de oro, by Anja Louis).

And just as art imitates life, life also imitates art. In Kimberlianne Podlas’ informative review of the media effects literature, she notes empirical support for television’s ability to frame issues, socialize viewers, and focus attention on some issues rather than others. Why do viewers of “reality” courtroom television expect judges to be opinionated and vocal? Because that is how Judge Judy acts. And these are not merely temporary influences. Cultivation theory tells us that the cumulative effect of exposure law, justice, and the legal system is the construction, in the viewer’s mind, of a world as presented on television.

But the phenomenon is more complex than that – and its true dynamic is reciprocal. Law & Order’s popularity explains in part why the public tends to have a low view of public defenders, but it is unlikely the show would have been so popular (and thus influential) had the public not shifted to the right on such issues as well.

Ironically, despite the wide range of the essays, one shortcoming of the volume is a lack of diversity. For all of the different disciplines, theories, and television shows presented, the analysis was nearly always qualitative, which is a categorical methodological omission. I say this not as one who scorns qualitative analyses or believes in the infallibility of quantitative measurement, but as an ecumenicist. As Cassandra Sharp correctly notes, for all its benefits, quantitative data cannot help but oversimplify investigations into complex nebulous phenomena such as culture; numbers do not always measure truest or best.

However, numbers can take us places interpretation alone cannot. There is a role for quantitative analysis, even in “squishy” subjects. Take, as a case in point, two plausible predictions offered by Nancy Marder as to the effect of diversity in “reality” courtroom television shows. On the one hand, she offers that diversity depicted on television might lead to increased diversity in reality, as perceived racial barriers and stereotypes are broken down. On the other hand, Marder realizes the diversity on television might inhibit efforts to bring diversity to the legal system, as viewers could draw the incorrect inference that significant diversity already exists in the legal system. So, which lesson do viewers draw? Can it be both? Or neither? Perhaps it depends on the viewer. Marder even notes that it is, “…hard to predict the effects of a diverse television judiciary” (p. 238). This is precisely where empirical investigation is useful – and in fact necessary to advance our understanding of the impact and import of such shows. Empirical analysis without a normative or interpretive base is aimless data crunching, but interpretive works have their own limitations; their value is often enhanced with an empirical supplement.

Such analysis would also have enhanced the pedagogical value of the textbook, which is (appropriately) billed as a useful supplement to law and culture or media studies courses offered at universities. The basic premise of the book is that what is depicted on television (and how) matters – and we [*4] have good reason to believe that it does. Paul Bergman’s interesting examination of television portrayals of rape shield laws would certainly fit well in a class such as Gender and Crime and would pique students’ interest. But are these portrayals of social significance? Can we show, via cultivation theory, that such shows are partly responsible for the continued underreporting of acquaintance rape? Or do relatively subtle shifts in rules of evidence in specific types of cases go completely over the average viewer’s head? Are women more attentive to such portrayals than men? A good liberal arts training teaches students how to think creatively, and how to evaluate, synthesize, and wield facts. But there must be information to wield, otherwise we encounter a problem somewhat analogous to what judges face when asked to rule on hypothetical disputes.

One virtue of edited volumes with multiple authors is the variety of perspectives and topics represented, and on this count, Law and Justice succeeds; it casts a very wide net. The volume may be of particular interest to scholars and students unfamiliar with, for example, approaches such as actor-network theory, which helpfully unpacked the blackbox of how television shows are produced. The chapters were educational and stimulating, and the anecdotal and interpretive evidence intriguing.

Still there may be a sense of unrequited curiosity for the empirically inclined. As a final example, this reviewer’s interest was piqued by the question of whether a “psychic detective” effect exists; alas, after reading that chapter he still does not know the answer. The essays raised many interesting questions, but I wish it had answered at least a few of them. Perhaps an old adage from show business best encapsulates both my praise and criticism of this volume: it leaves me wanting more.

Copyright 2013 by the Author, Nicholas LaRowe