‘Bob’s Burgers’ understands courtroom drama better than its serious minded contemporaries.
A trial is theater with purpose. We can skip around it. We can willfully ignore it. However, we cannot escape it. Jury trials are the performance of justice in pursuit of justice. Our adversarial legal system is many things but through its focus on the persuasion of a jury of one’s peers it must by its very nature lure the finders of fact to a side through the showmanship of reason. Television trial sequences are doubly so. Sometimes on screen persuasion takes the form of heated drama a la Law & Order and other times, as the case with Bob’s Burgers “A Few ‘Gurt Men,” it is comedy.
The setup for the episode is simple. The Belcher kids are involved in a mock trial simulation at school. Gene, as the prosecution, is beyond excited and Louise, as the defense, is apathetic at best. Meanwhile, Tina is beyond serious about being a juror – which, many would lament, as the least realistic aspect of the proceedings within the episode. It is a silly premise which connects the seriousness of adult work with the cartoonish charm of the most engaging child characters on television. The episode is a parody of pop-culture court drama but in the chaos and laughs it reveals things about the process of justice in America more precisely than its serious-minded contemporaries.
First, the episode embracing its referential title accepts that trial is theater. In fact, to some extent, the audience of the episode is twofold: the retired Judge Conklin and the viewer. Judge Conklin enjoys his role as administrative spectator. He even lacks on his duties as the judge to bask in the sheer drama of the proceeding. As far as fictional judges go Conklin is comedically permissive. He allows in court outbursts, ad hominem attacks of the accused, and aggressive badgering of witnesses. He’s just enjoying the show. While the viewer, likely well versed in the concept of film and television lawyering, is cued up to the old standards – the southern country lawyer, the persecuted defense attorney, the accused but truly innocent. These are more than pop-culture narratives, these are themes of opening statements, of entire defenses. These types of central themes are built into trial persuasion. Trial advocacy classes around the country are teaching new generations of lawyers that to speak to a jury is to tell a narrative of guilt or innocence. Trial is storytelling.
Louise is initially at a disadvantage as the narrative of her fictional client is set in collective fairytale stone. Louise is tasked with representing the Evil Queen against an attempted murder charge for poisoning Snow White. Louise laments the predictability of the proceedings, “I mean it’s just so babyish why can’t we do a mock trial of a double homicide?” She’s right given that, as she later acknowledges, everyone knows the story of Snow White. It’s limiting. Louise attempts to get around this. Not because she has some inner sense of moral responsibility but because she wants to go home. She supports an argument in favor of mistrial by stating that because everyone knows the story of Snow White she cannot possibly build an independent narrative of innocence. Conklin finds it unpersuasive. Thereby, the most unrealistic depiction of the trial process illuminates a hard truth of practice: an argument’s value is based on its ability to persuade not only a jury but a judge. For lawyers, arguments are practical. They get you something. Whether that is a voided contract or a life sentence, an argument is only as good as what results from its success or failure.
While the stakes of Louise’s first trial are low, the show amps up the challenges in the second proceeding. If only through bartering some potential adult embarrassment. The accused in the second mock proceeding is none other than Louise’s adult nemesis, Mr. Frond. Frond is accused of the break room transgression of eating that which is clearly not his, a strawberry yogurt. The dairy-based snack from which part of the title gets its name. This time not motivated by apathy but more animus – Louise dislikes Mr. Frond for his bureaucratic blandness, desperate attempts at teaching, and all around adult sadness – Louise wants nothing more than for Frond to plead guilty and cut the proceeding short. Mr. Ambrose is aggressively anti-Frond as well. Further, once Louise makes the decision to force Frond to plead guilty, Frond sadly accepts. He’s beaten down by the presumption of guilt by Ambrose and Louise and wants to leave as well. However, once Louise truly sees the power of having the system stacked against you – Frond’s broken spirit – she develops a sense of compassion for Frond and her plan falls apart. The obvious comparison the episode draws between the hallowed courtroom walls of pop-culture lawyering is between Louise and To Kill a Mocking Bird’s Atticus Finch. The powerful symbol of a noble defense attorney standing in praise of his or her client amongst of sea of systematic oppression. Whereas Atticus faces the systematic pressure of racism, Louise faces the oppression of a pathetic client.
As Aristotle once said, and Elle Woods slightly disagreed with, “Law is reason free from passion.” Law is meant to stand apart from human emotion for in this objective distance the chance for true justice springs. This holding out of the law as the objective truth is at once necessary and dangerous. The failure to deal pragmatically with the passions of humanity can cause systematic injustice that could have been foreseeable. One of the reasons lawyer jokes land so smoothly is that they highlight the need for ethical lawyering in everyday practice. The repeated lawyer misbehaving highlights how that abuse of lawyerly powers can cause major transgressions. We want our lawyers to behave ethically because when unlimited their power they can be dangerous. Lawyers see clients only when the bottom has fallen out of their lives, in the case of criminal defense attorneys doubly so. Legal work is intrinsically passionate and to exclude this for grand narratives of black and white morality is a mistake. While all client’s wrongs are not created equal the bounds of our justice system hold that they themselves are worthy of representation and should be presumed innocent until proven otherwise. Under this protection of the law, they are granted the right to ensure continuing freedom even when the bounds of moral and ethical decency shudder at their conduct.
What Bob’s Burger’s gets right through Louise is that a defense attorney is as vital to our adversarial process as any other attorney in the ranks. That, although they do a thankless job for a thankless society, the very foundations of our process can only be illuminated through tireless effort. These big ideas and big words drill down to the simple statement: “everyone deserves a fair trial. Even a broken down, chewed-up, spit-out guidance counselor like Mr. Frond.” In this statement, Bob’s Burgers understands the judicial system better than Law & Order.