Skeins dish out B&W injustice


TV’s reigning lifestyle queen dumps nearly 4,000 shares of stock right before the price tumbles. Asst. D.A. Jack McCoy subsequently charges her not only with insider trading but also second-degree manslaughter in the death of a man who committed suicide after squandering his savings by purchasing ImKlone at $60.

The verdict: Guilty!

OK, I made that up. Yet when “Law & Order” premiered, the show brimmed with complexity, wrongdoers occasionally got away with it, and savvy defense lawyers often exhibited a collegial rapport with district attorneys.

Compare that to the franchise’s fourth “brand extension,” subtitled “Trial by Jury.” Passed through “TBJ’s” filter, Martha Stewart’s celebrity wouldn’t land her a brief prison stay and two TV shows as soon as she was released. Rather, the hard-charging D.A.s would find damaging last-minute evidence enabling them to throw the book at her, high-priced legal advice be damned.

Race, politics and celebrity are still issues in “Law”-“Law”-land, but these days they seldom present more than a hiccup in the process of dispensing justice. Defense lawyers, meanwhile, have shed any vestiges of humanity, laying bare the sneering reptiles underneath those expensive suits.

It’s the perfect symbol, ultimately, for TV’s schizophrenic relationship with the justice system, where the crowded blotter of crime series increasingly bears scant resemblance to team coverage up the dial. As a consequence, viewers still angry about O.J. Simpson’s acquittal can watch the Stewart, Michael Jackson and Robert Blake cases unfold, then tune in dramas that provide wish-fulfillment fantasy for those who prefer convicting first and asking questions later.

Given their ratings success, these programs obviously tap into a hunger, even a need for concise righteousness. The dissonance resides in the gray area between those programs and real news, rife as it is with celebrities benefiting from unequal justice, big-city police being accused of brutality and other messy examples of law and disorder.

There is doubtless something comforting about the black-and-white depictions of the dramatic world that leads us further away from a reality with color-coded terror alerts. In that context, the body count on “CSI-I-I” feels like an escapist lark, as representative of the legal system as the cantina scene in “Star Wars” is of a singles bar on a Friday night.

Even so, the deluge of crime shows briskly meting out punishment in 44 minutes inevitably clouds our understanding and expectations of what law-enforcement can and should do. For while people are smart enough to recognize fiction when they see it, a steady procedural diet surely feeds exasperation when “the system” doesn’t function the way Court TV and cable news pundits insist that it should.

It’s been duly noted that heavy TV viewers tend to see the world as being scarier and more dangerous than it is in reality, but there’s another risk with taking those images too seriously. Because however reassuring “Trial by Jury” seeks to be, it’s never wise to assume — especially with the rich and well connected — that no bad deed goes unpunished.

Split Decision: Despite my negative reaction to Showtime’s “Fat Actress” (and I involuntarily shudder at the memory), a spectrum of the early reviews indicates the series did tap into a certain feminine anger over the modern obsession with thinness and beauty.

Whatever its drawbacks, the Kirstie Alley vehicle generated some thoughtful discussion of those issues among female critics, who sounded a little tired of programs where the largest woman onscreen weights 106 pounds, dripping wet.

And speaking of dripping wet, to appreciate the double standards that exist pertaining to women one need only have witnessed last week’s episode of “The Starlet,” the WB’s new unscripted series that winnows down 10 ingenues hoping to land a part on the netlet’s “One Tree Hill.”

Proving sweeps are really just a state of mind, the second hour prompted a near-revolt among the thirsty-for-fame contestants, who were directed to recreate a lesbian kiss scene — in a hot tub — from the since-defunct Fox series “Fastlane.” Not to put too fine a point on it, but I haven’t seen anything quite like it since my comp subscription to Maxim expired.

The girls briefly worried that they were being exploited (Ya think?), before Jaime Pressly — the zero-percent-fat actress who partook in the original kiss with Tiffani Thiessen — showed up to reassure them it was just part of the job.

“Everyone in the business is exploited,” she said.

Maybe so, but until males vying to be crowned “The Hunk” are compelled to engage in splashy same-sex lip-locks, it’s pretty clear that not everyone is exploited equally.

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