On last night's premiere of the new David E. Kelley legal reality show, The Law Firm, one of the episode's pivotal semiscripted gags revolved around one young woman's misunderstanding of the term "vigilante." A cute young attorney named Kelly, who had been assigned along with two colleagues to prosecute a man who had taken the law into his own hands to make a citizen's arrest, disagreed with her teammates about whether to describe the defendant as a "vigilante" in their opening statement. "I think a vigilante has, like, a positive connotation," she protested, as her teammates rolled their eyes at the camera behind her back.
Kelly wound up being voted off the show at the end of the first episode, a casualty of her own ditziness. But watch a little prime-time TV these days and it's easy to understand her confusion about the moral valence of vigilantism. The current attitude toward those who blithely disregard the law in their singleminded pursuit of justice as they see it is about as laudatory as it's been since the days of Dirty Harry. TNT's new cop drama Wanted (premiering this Sunday at 10 p.m. ET) is a profoundly dumb show, a murky and nearly unfollowable jumble of quick cuts, process shots, and bleached-out flashback sequences. It wouldn't be worth writing about at all except for the fact that it takes the pro-vigilante ethic further than any show currently on TV (with the possible exception of 24).
Throughout the show's first few episodes, scene after scene shows the elite interdisciplinary crime-solving team (each of whom is granted one defining personality trait: The Christian! The Latin Lover! The Woman!) casually flouting the boundaries of cop protocol. Asked by a local LAPD cop why his unit is commandeering a crime scene, the flinty team leader, Lt. Conrad Rose (Gary Cole) sneers, "We don't have to knock before we enter." Told that he needs a warrant to investigate a gun shop, tough guy Jimmy McGloin (Ryan Hurst) begs to differ: "I'm ATF, which means I do whatever I damn well please." Must be nice.
If Wanted has one organizing theme—besides the casual deployment of graphic violence against children, which pops up conveniently whenever the show needs to up the emotional ante—it's the show's insistence that the members of its crack team operate outside of all known limits, and that anyone who has a problem with that is (and, usually, has) a pussy. Women on Wanted are consistently represented as the stick-in-the-mud party-spoilers whose talk of due process and civil rights is derided as so much touchy-feely psychobabble. After Rose performs an interrogation while holding the suspect's testicles in a vise grip, a by-the-book DA (Karen Sillas) warns him that any information obtained via ball-crushing will be inadmissible in court. She accuses Rose's team of "crossing jurisdictions and customizing state and local statutes on the fly." "That's actually a compliment," Rose shoots back.
The gender divide provides a convenient framework in which to understand the workings of frontier justice: A real man takes the law (and the bad guy's nuts) into his own hands, and much as the womenfolk may raise a fuss, deep down they like it. The show's eroticization of vigilantism gets literalized in the third episode, when Carla Merced (Rashida Jones), the plucky new woman on the team (whose arrival was at first greeted with a chorus of misogynist kvetching) summarizes the charm of the alpha male for her fellow crimesolvers: "Women like power, period. Hunters, not gatherers … It's all about confidence, self-possession, sex without asking first." Finally, a female TV cop willing to speak up in defense of rape! In another scene, when one of the team members dares to question Rose's unconventional methods for running the unit, he's crisply told off by a colleague: "We work on a lead, follow, or get-out-of-the-way philosophy. We don't have time for professional foreplay."
In a subplot about Rose's busted marriage, the same male/female divide on the question of what constitutes appropriate force gets replayed on a domestic scale. Rose's ex-wife Lucinda (Dedee Pfeiffer) calls her husband to discuss their son's suspension from school for fighting. As the two debate what the boy's punishment should be, Rose takes the child's side against his mother: "I'm trying to raise a boy into a man here, and hand-wringing, second-guessing, and warm milk aren't gonna help get him there." (Leave it to a woman to be so stupid as to think milk has anything to do with raising a child.) As it turns out, their son's attack on the school bully was an act of pre-emptive self-defense; the bigger kid hadn't quite gotten around to attacking him yet, but he was definitely planning to soon. He was a bad guy in the making, and little Tony was just exercising some righteous Dirty Harry justice in miniature.
Would it be too much to postulate that, since the introduction of the Patriot Act and the abuses at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and elsewhere, America somehow needs to see vigilantism portrayed on the small screen as a brave, sexy, death-defying choice, while due process gets disparaged as the province of whiny, wimpy girlie-men? There's certainly been a proliferation of TV shows about entities that operate somewhere outside the known boundaries of law enforcement, in the gray zone between intelligence-gathering, forensics and straight-up policing. Between Alias, 24, NCIS, and now Wanted, crimedramas are growing less and less concerned with law and order, and casting their lot with the freewheeling machismo of cops who live by their own rules.