Last May a federal jury indicted three gamers on several charges, including making hoax reports and obstruction of justice, after they were accused of reporting a fake crime as a prank — a prank that resulted in a 28-year-old’s death. In the months that followed the controversial act of “swatting” has not only ignited national debate, but the topic sparked conversation in the writers’ room at Shondaland’s “For the People,” inspiring the adrenaline-fueled storyline that propels the characters forward on the drama’s secondseason premiere.
The ABC series, which revolves around a crew of promising legal minds working for the defense and prosecution at the historic Southern District Court of New York, has always had the goal of dissecting relevant and noteworthy legal issues and cases from both sides of the court. Yet when creator and showrunner Paul William Davies began conceptualizing the series more than three years ago, he had no way of knowing just how prevalent “The Mother Court” would become in the current news cycle.
“This court has been around for 200 years, it’s the most important and high-profile trial court in America and some of the biggest cases of the 20th century happened in that court,” he says. “But I did not foresee that in the last couple of years it would become this prominent and this in-the-news every single day in the way that it is. Not just with the Donald Trump stuff — every time you turn around there’s another high-profile story coming through this court.”
In the show’s first season, Davies, a Stanford Law graduate with a PhD in history from Berkley who practiced law for 10 years, largely told stories of mandatory minimum sentencing, groundwater contamination, or the issue of entrapment as it related to each of the mains on the call sheet. He tackled each of the 10 episodes as a way to introduce the characters in the world while exploring the relationships between public defenders and prosecutors — a relationship that can be as teetering as the scales of justice.
The tactic of using cases (political, legal, medical or otherwise) as they relate to characters in a profession is a staple trademark of any procedural, but in Shondaland those cases often hold a mirror up to society. Over the course of its 10-episode, second-season run, “For the People” unravels cases of parent-child separation, corruption in juvenile detention centers, a defendant’s ability to raise bail and the complicated relationship between jailhouse lawyers and defense teams.
The recent Michael Cohen testimony that also took place at the Southern District isn’t lost on Davies either. While his team hasn’t crafted any specific storylines tackling the investigation into the president, they’ve taken the tension between Trump’s office and Washington and transformed it into a “salient” story involving voting for the finale. Meanwhile one of the showrunner’s favorite episodes of the season involves a section of the law allowing the attorney-client privilege to fracture, which he says did come up in the Cohen case.
“I am always culling the actual docket from the Southern District and all kinds of other federal courts around the country to find particular cases,” he says. “Sometimes we do lean more into the defense and sometimes we lean into the prosecution. When you look at the whole, each season and then over the course of the series, I think we are fair and weighted pretty equally in terms of the perspective. People from all different walks of life and different ideologies can come to the show and find something satisfying and relatively accurate from their perspective. That’s one of the goals of the show.”
Given the dramatic nature of the series Davies is aware it isn’t always possible to write stories reflecting the reality of the current legal system, and that sometimes the writing tends towards aspirational in order to balance the outcomes (such as speedy trials). When it comes to nailing the core points and even often on specific issues though, he and a team of legal consultants work to ensure few aspects of the law are actually scarified for story.
“The judicial system is almost the last refuge of what can be very pointed but still civil discourse and the ability for people who do have different perspectives to work through their problems,” he says. “It’s not a perfect system, there are all kinds of injustices — sometimes flagrant — but at least as of this morning it still exists. It’s important, and so this is a bit of a love letter to the independent judicial system.”
“For the People” Season 2 premieres Mar. 7 at 10 p.m. on ABC.