NBC's Outlaw is deeply cynical, wholly unbelievable, and weirdly conservative.

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Sept. 23 2010 12:20 PM

Criminally Bad

NBC's Outlaw is deeply cynical, wholly unbelievable, and weirdly conservative.

Jimmy Smits as Cyrus Garza in Outlaw.
Jimmy Smits as Cyrus Garza in Outlaw

The Supreme Court oral-argument scene at the very beginning of Outlaw, NBC's new Jimmy Smits vehicle, is awfully realistic. It looks exactly like the real court, right down to the pretend Justice Ginsburg and faux Alito. But beyond that, everything about Outlaw, which settles into its Friday time slot this week, is so terrible it makes your face hurt. I can suspend disbelief as readily as the next guy. Suspending abject horror, however, is another matter.

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate. Follow her on Twitter.

The conceit of Outlaw is that Smits' character, Cyrus Garza, described as "the most conservative justice on the Supreme Court," has a moral awakening after his father—a liberal cult hero who "marched with Bobby Kennedy and Cesar Chavez"—dies in a car accident. Suddenly, after years of reliably voting with the court's 5-4 conservative bloc, Garza determines that he must quit the court in order to help little guys to be named later. In the pilot, which aired last week, he signs up to work on a death-penalty appeal on which he once ruled as a Supreme Court Justice. "If the Bar Association wants to come after me, they can," he says.

In other words, Outlaw is premised on the deep Hollywood suspicion that under every principled ideological conservative there lies a man whose father just hasn't been killed in a tragic auto accident yet.

The suggestion that a man can do more to help the little guy by quitting the Supreme Court than he can on the bench has been too much for most reviewers, but since shows about justices who stay on the court always tend to get canceled after a month, perhaps the artistic license here is permissible. But even if you're willing to accept that Justice Garza would depart the greatest legal job in the land to slog it out in the trial courts, you also have to accept the premise that he got confirmed to the court in the first place. And Justice Garza is vile. Not cutely flawed like Dr. Housebut god-awful, like Skeletor. When we first meet Garza, he's being tossed out of a casino for card-counting; then he's sparring wittily with an ACLU protestor outside the casino; then he's sleeping with the ACLU protestor from outside the casino. Then he's telling his law clerk he only hired her because she's "pretty." Given that you can't get confirmed to the Supreme Court unless you have never committed a traffic violation, the notion that a man with $250,000 in gambling debt who talks to women as if they are porterhouse steaks could ever be seated in the first place is demented. The writers deal with Garza's profound unlikability by having him throw nerf balls around as he talks.

To combat the basic boringness of all high-concept legal shows, Outlaw's writers have settled on a sensible strategy: sex. Sexual intrigue everywhere the man turns. To keep the sexual tension at a constant simmer, Garza employs a "team." We know this because he calls them "my team." The team includes the Betty and Veronica duo of an idealistic blond liberal (Ellen Woglom) who is madly in love with the crusading former justice and a slutty brunette private investigator (Carly Pope) who talks as if she works at the Mustang Ranch. ("I don't want to be your lover. You want to get in my pants, don't you?" Seriously. She says stuff like that. Then she breaks the law to find exculpatory evidence for Garza's clients.) The third member of Garza's youthful team, Jesse Bradford's right-leaning Harvard lawyer, appears to be as baffled by her boundless sexual self-regard as the rest of us. I'd wager that there was more raunchy sex talk in the premiere of Outlaw than there has been among all Supreme Court justices in the history of the court.

I wasn't particularly bothered by the show's mangled legal universe, a world in which wiretapping is conveniently permissible so long as the conversations are "patently illegal," and evidence of actual innocence is magically admissible in death-penalty cases because, um, one time it was legal in a tort case. Nobody is going to make a show about successive habeas petitions interesting. The real sin of Outlaw isn't the bad writing or the gratuitous sexism or the liberties it takes with the rules of evidence. It's the cynical view of the legal system, a view that holds that the law is fundamentally unjust and lawyers must go outside the system if they are ever to achieve moral results.

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.

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