There is a wave of new series offering an innovative take on the traditional legal drama.
The verdict is in: legal dramas are as hot as ever. The high stakes and suspense of courtroom proceedings have long provided fertile ground for storytelling, and TV audiences are guilty as charged when it comes to their innate interest in whodunits and seeing justice served.
“There’s something about the legal process that allows for twists and turns in a story,” says Jane Featherstone, founder of Sister Pictures and executive producer of the divorce-law drama The Split, sold by BBC Studios. “It allows for complex storytelling, and audiences are very sophisticated now and love stories that have real detail to them.”
And while the genre is anything but new to the TV landscape, there’s been a nice upswing in its popularity of late. “Everything has its time,” Featherstone continues. “We’ve had lots of serialized crime stories, and it feels like maybe there have been enough of those for a while—even though there is always room for another great one. Maybe it’s time for something else to evolve from it and take center stage. It’s a good time for legal drama.”
The success of true-crime stories in the international marketplace has also helped to drive interest in shows exploring law and justice, says Jason Simms, director of drama and comedy at Sky Vision, whose catalog includes the twist-laden four-parter The Victim.
“The impact and resonance of series like Making a Murderer and The Jinx have influenced demand for drama to up its game and be more authentic and even more compelling,” he says. “You can see that being woven into interesting shows like the American Crime Story series or Netflix’s Mindhunter, where you’ve got real-life criminals or real-life cases being reshaped into fantastic dramas. The demands for authenticity and really going there are now playing into fully fictional dramas as well.”
THE REAL DEAL
One of the ways that producers are providing a fresh spin on this well-worn genre is by fusing true crime and scripted drama. Take, for example, The Interrogation and Unspeakable, both from U.K. indie Story Films and sold by all3media international. “Story Films’ USP is being inspired and motived by real events and turning that into authentic, great drama,” says Maartje Horchner, executive VP of content at all3media international. “In Unspeakable, they were inspired by real evidence of domestic violence. In The Interrogation, they use real police transcripts.”
Channel 4 commissioned The Interrogation as a one-off that tells the story of Tony Martin, who was sentenced to life imprisonment after shooting and killing 16-year-old burglar Fred Barras. “It’s been really exciting to see how they have been able to use real people’s words, verbatim,” says Horchner. “The actors speak these words and yet still put in a dramatic performance, making it an entertaining and compelling show for the viewer. Forgetting that it is real and then being thrown back into that stark realization—that the words you hear have been literally used in the interrogation of a suspect—is quite chilling, especially in a case like Tony Martin’s.”
The 25-year history of investigative journalism at Russia’s NTV has provided a natural springboard into legal drama. “NTV is perfectly positioned to develop this ever-popular genre,” says Timur Weinstein, general producer of NTV Broadcasting Company. “When prosecution and defense clash in a courtroom, it always makes the audience gasp, regardless of nationality.”
The company has in its catalog The Win Cases, packed with lavish costumes and props that offer a glimpse into the Russian legal wars of the early 1900s, and Lawyers, which follows the stressful life of an attorney. “We don’t have many courtroom dramas on Russian TV, so for NTV this genre is of primary importance,” Weinstein says.
NTV recently finished filming a remake of The Good Wife, localizing the hit U.S. drama for Russian audiences. “The American justice system is cinematic in itself,” says Weinstein. “There are spacious courtrooms where an attorney moves around freely, a defendant sits to the right of the judge—it resembles a theatrical show. In Russia, the courtroom’s inner layout is different: a defendant stands in front of the judge, attorneys and prosecutors sit or stand depending on the situation. Since we had to make a [series] of high quality that will be valuable to the rest of the world, we created a legal reality to aspire to. The project designer rethought existing realities and created authentic courtrooms that would attract viewers’ attention to what happens within their walls.”
Weinstein also notes that the actual dealings of the Russian legal system aren’t generally presented to the public, so dramas that can give viewers a look inside are all the more alluring.
Red Arrow Studios International, meanwhile, has found strong legal stories coming from the Nordics, including Stella Blómkvist, a neo-noir crime drama that stars Heida Reed as the eponymous quick-witted lawyer. “Legal and crime dramas featuring strong, independent women as the lead character are nothing new, but we’ve recently seen a number of international hits originate from the Nordic countries, where society as a whole is quite emancipated,” says Bo Stehmeier, the company’s executive VP of global sales. The series resonated with audiences in Iceland, doubling Síminn TV’s average rating and scoring a second season, and it is also selling well internationally, according to Stehmeier.
Because today’s TV landscape is much more open to non-English-language drama, Iceland’s prowess in legal storytelling is getting its time to shine. “Iceland has increasingly proven to be an interesting creative hub,” Stehmeier says. “Given its small creative community, what is coming out of the country is very impressive. They are forging a Nordic style all their own.”
He adds that the size of some Scandinavian economies often doesn’t allow for big production budgets, “so legal or courtroom-based shows are an ideal way to drive conflict and intrigue within a narrative while keeping to the constraints placed by limited budgets.”
The Court and its spin-off series Case, both produced by Iceland’s Sagafilm and sold by Red Arrow Studios International, are “good examples of intelligent and challenging Icelandic legal dramas” that have garnered interest from markets around the world, Stehmeier says.
STUDIOCANAL’s The Lawyer offers a fresh take on the genre, as it merges legal drama with crime and elements from Scandi thrillers. “This great combination broadens the target audience and makes the series more appealing and fast-paced to suit younger viewers as well,” says Beatriz Campos, the company’s head of international sales.
While local flavor can certainly add to a show’s appeal, legal dramas need to exercise caution so that they aren’t weighed down by the country-specific nature of courtroom dealings and law. “It’s really important for legal dramas to be produced in broad strokes, as it is all about the protagonists, not the law books,” Campos says. “Few of us would want to sit down to enjoy an evening of debate over the intricacies of Swedish/Danish law. However, when there are some clear, salient legal points made to move the story forward, this is often interesting from an outsider’s point of view.”
Horchner at all3media international says that for this type of show to travel widely, the legal system of the home country shouldn’t be a big part of the drama. “Each system is different the world over, and it can be hard to come to grips with a legal system if that is integral to a storyline. Justice and the emotions that it brings forth are universal. In the end, we want to know the characters; that will always be key. We want to feel their emotions and see the world through their eyes. Then it doesn’t matter where they are from.”
“Despite the fact that there may be differences in the technical elements or structure of the courts from country to country, everybody loves the premise of a trial: the idea of a defense, a prosecution and a jury,” adds Sky Vision’s Simms. “People love getting into stories like that because they want to work out whether or not somebody did the crime, whether someone will be found guilty or not. That’s a compelling and very basic human drive [that is factored into] the way that these stories are put together and why they’re so appealing.”
And just because they’re scripted doesn’t necessarily mean that legal dramas can get away with being too loose with facts. “These days, audiences are a lot more demanding,” Simms says. “They respond to authenticity, and particularly so when the show is rooted in topical subject matter. That goes back to the fact that people are devouring true-crime shows on all kinds of platforms. Viewers are very savvy about what goes into a case and the way that things are investigated.” Which is why many of the shows in this genre bring in legal consultants to help ensure accuracy.
The Victim, for example, had a macer—an official in the Scottish court system charged with keeping order and etiquette in the courtroom—on the set every day. “They were able to advise as to the details of the procedure,” Simms notes. “Given that a significant part of the narrative is set in and around a courtroom trial, it was important for the producers to get that right and be utterly convincing. Having somebody like a macer there helped them build a really strong sense of identity for the show.”
NTV’s Weinstein agrees that it’s critical to consult experts when creating high-quality legal drama. “We have legal consultants, including practicing lawyers, working on every NTV legal drama series. They help us avoid mistakes” and ensure that shows are believable and relevant.
NTV is currently producing Bailiffs and is putting an emphasis on accuracy within the dramatic storytelling, since Russian viewers only have a vague idea of how these officers of the court really work, Weinstein says. “It was important for us to make all the details in this TV series as realistic as possible, so we worked side by side with the Federal Bailiffs Service [the Russian government agency responsible for the orderly functioning of courts]. Many stories that the audience will see on screen were inspired by true events that the bailiffs had to deal with.”
Sister Pictures’ The Split made use of several advisors in the family-law business, including barristers and solicitors, but Featherstone says that the producers have the final say on the level of accuracy for a drama.
“No crime show is ever completely authentic; it can’t be, otherwise it’s a documentary. We tried to get as much advice as we could to make the details feel as authentic to law as possible. I don’t think we got everything perfectly accurate, but most of the time we knew we were deviating from the advice—we just felt that it was more interesting for the audience. Ultimately, it’s not a documentary, so we can deviate from the advice if we choose to.”
The Split, which had a six-episode first season and has been commissioned for a second, has a strong focus on family and relationships even though it’s set against a legal backdrop. Featherstone says that in the beginning, viewers were a bit unsure of the format—if it was a legal drama or a relationship drama—but, ultimately, the fact that it’s a hybrid is what made viewers embrace it.
“Ally McBeal is one of my absolute favorite legal dramas ever, and what I remember from that show is not the legal stories; I remember all the incredible relationship stories and the main character,” Featherstone explains. “So there has always been a history of exploring characters and relationships, but then it became quite procedural, which also has real merit. Given that so many series these days are serialized and the audience is trained to have relationships with characters over a long period of time, the legal drama has had to make sure that it kept up with that kind of storytelling.”
“With stronger SVOD viewing habits, there is a definite appetite for serialized drama that can be binge-watched,” says STUDIOCANAL’s Campos. “There is a great opportunity for legal drama to adapt to this trend, in addition to the standard procedural series that may have dominated this genre in the past.”
This doesn’t mean that legal procedurals are by any means passé; they’re still a prime-time mainstay on many channels in major markets around the world. “There is no shortage of love from audiences for that case-of-the-week format,” says Sky Vision’s Simms. “But they’ve evolved over the years. They are less down the middle than they used to be because you now have these overarching serial arcs where you’ve got characters’ stories going across multiple seasons. It’s not always just about the case itself; it’s about the people around it.”
Legal procedurals are also commercially desirable, as they stand up well to repeat viewing. “People can watch procedurals over and over again,” says Simms. “They can be scheduled across multiple parts of the grid for linear broadcasters.
“That said, there’s plenty of space and demand for serialized dramas,” he continues. “They tell the story in a different way and take more time to do it; perhaps they even go places that procedurals can’t.”
Given the appeal of legal dramas to audiences and broadcasters, there’s room in the market for both formats—especially as viewing habits shift between platforms.
Red Arrow’s Stehmeier sees the genre headed in two different directions: one where shows are “filled with complex characters and plotlines—more suited to the pay and SVOD markets—and on the other side of the spectrum, lighter, long-running series with structured beats, varied locations and a sprinkling of comedy and romance.”
Horchner at all3media says that these types of shows are “an everlasting win-win for buyers, but since the world has opened up to more international drama, the pool for buyers to choose from has grown, which makes competition much stronger. I think buyers like the serialized angle but do prefer the potential for returning drama, hence the increased need for anthologies to make this happen. As long as the producer and writer have a plan for the subsequent series anthology or are clear that it’s a one-off—but event TV nonetheless—buyers are keen to keep talking.”
Pictured: Red Arrow’s Stella Blómkvist.