NBC's Outlaw is deeply cynical, wholly unbelievable, and weirdly conservative.
When Justice Garza departs the Supreme Court, he does so with a lofty-sounding speech about how he "used to be satisfied being cautious and neutral—being Switzerland." Garza says he's spent years mechanically applying "the law," but now he's ready to get out there and change things. Or as he puts it: "Following the rules doesn't always lead to justice. When that happens, you've got to change the rules."
The problem isn't that Garza turns to lawyering in order to help people. It's that the way he goes about changing the law seems to be by breaking it. His private eye gets hold of classified information the old fashioned way: "by flashing my boobs." His clerks track down a reluctant witness with illegal wiretaps. So he's not just saying that justices can't deliver justice. He's saying that the only way to deliver justice is through a life of crime.
When a judge tells him he's far too late to introduce new evidence in his death penalty appeal, Garza offers yet another high-minded speech about changing the law to assure that it provides "not just fairness, but moral justice." "So many times I was sitting up there feeling like my hands were tied," he lectures the judge. What he never explains is why other judges should feel free to change the law to make it more fair when he could not. The oddity of a man who is tired of being Switzerland stepping down from the bench so he can spend his days browbeating other judges to stop being Switzerland is never explained.
There are tiny fibers of an interesting argument here—about whether or not courts exist to protect the weakest citizens—but Outlaw's conclusion is upside-down. Garza is so certain that the law and the courts oppress the weak, he leaves the court and goes outside the bounds of law to correct it. He is so persuaded that no judge can do "justice," he gives up on them altogether. This is the Supreme Court conservatives' view of the legal system: That the law is an airless, mechanistic set of fixed rules that privilege those who write the laws and often fail those who are weak or powerless. It's a view that's quite fashionable in some quarters, but also a view that hugely undersells both the court and Americans' notions of justice. How liberal Hollywood presented such a deeply conservative show about an allegedly liberal hero is the real mystery of Outlaw.
Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate.
Still from Outlaw courtesy Jordin Althaus/NBC.