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TV Reviews: Two new shows find real-life dramas in the courtroom

Friday, June 14, 2002

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Better than the histrionics of "The Practice," more real than most "reality" TV, the latest "Law & Order" spinoff makes a case for the newly minted "drama-mentary" genre with this engrossing entry.

'Crime & Punishment'

WHEN: 10 p.m. Sunday on NBC.


In truth, "Crime & Punishment" is not a "Law & Order" spinoff in name, but it is in spirit. From the opening narration ("In the criminal justice system...") to the font of the titles to the signature "chung chung" sound effect, this series from "Law & Order" executive producer Dick Wolf is the spitting image of the fictional "Law & Order."

But this is nonfiction, which in some ways makes it more dramatic. We aren't watching characters, but real people. Our sympathies go out to the victims, our disgust to the accused, at least in the two episodes I watched where the guilt of the defendants was in little doubt.

Wolf's crew, including Academy Award-winning documentarian and series co-creator Bill Guttentag ("You Don't Have to Die"), followed cases brought to trial by the San Diego District Attorney's office. Cameras were placed discreetly in courtrooms to capture the proceedings.

In Sunday's premiere, "People v. James Dailey," Deputy District Attorney Dan Goldstein prosecutes Dailey for first-degree murder of his estranged wife, whose body has never been found. The evidence is mostly circumstantial, but convincing, particularly testimony from more than a dozen witnesses who claim Dailey threatened to kill his wife on multiple occasions, detailing how he'd dispose of her body. But the case isn't a slam dunk.

"She slept with an awful lot of people and they're making a big deal of that," Goldstein says.

There's no narration in "Crime & Punishment." The show allows its subjects to speak for themselves, both during the trial and back in the prosecutor's office.

"I'm worried about him coming across too sympathetic," Goldstein says of Dailey. "He's a putz, he's pathetic. I just hope he's not building a sympathy barrier between me and a guilty verdict."

A future episode covers a child sex abuse case, which is uncomfortable to watch at times.

Though the DA's office is in the spotlight, an NBC publicist said not every defendant is convicted.

Watching "Crime & Punishment" is like watching Court TV with all the boring parts edited out. It's also been edited and packaged for a TV viewing public that's accustomed to scripted legal dramas (only drawback: in this show, we don't get to hear the sidebar conversation between the judge and lawyers). "Crime & Punishment" isn't as outrageous as the scripted shows, but it's just as addictive.

'State v.'

ABC's "State v." (10 p.m. Wednesday) is more comprehensive, but less dramatic. It's a production of ABC News, narrated by legal correspondent Cynthia McFadden, while the NBC show is from the entertainment division.

Unlike "Crime & Punishment," "Stave v." follows a case from both sides, though Wednesday's premiere depicts the prosecutor as a lame duck -- he's about to become a judge -- who doesn't work as hard as a less experienced public defender.

The first case, "State v. Santos," chronicles the trial of 26-year-old Rudy Santos, who admits he shot and killed a friend but claims it was in self-defense.

"State v.," filmed in Arizona's Maricopa County courtrooms, shows the jury selection process and jury deliberations, something "Crime & Punishment" skips because it's against California law to film a jury.

Though more well-rounded, "State v." at times feels like a "reality" show with trumped-up drama as jurors bicker while deliberating. "Crime & Punishment" has a glossier sheen entirely reminiscent of the proven "Law & Order" formula.

Rob Owen can be reached at 412-263-2582 or rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments about TV to www.post-gazette.com/tv under PG Online Talk.

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