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[Drama chat] Legal drama overdose

Dramaland has always been full of its lawyers and prosecutors, but it really feels like they took over the playing field in 2022. There are more main characters with legal professions than I feel willing to name — from the good (Extraordinary Attorney Woo) to the bad (Big Mouth) to the ugly (Why Her).

While I don’t necessarily flock to a legal drama, there are times when I really enjoy how it sets high stakes for our characters and their journeys. Rather than have them be mere participants in a misadventure, they are on the frontlines of it, and responsible for bringing justice.

That being said, yawn! Sometimes, I don’t want to see the legal side of a drama’s mayhem play out, and wish the stories would stop focusing on law-breaking and law-enforcing and explore other settings, like, I don’t know — the life of a vacuum salesperson, or a chaebol heir who decides to become a barber. In other words, even though there are a lot of ideas out there, legal dramas have become a mainstay of dramaland.
 

Why are legal dramas so popular? Why do screenwriters love these types of stories so much?

 
PS: If you like, you can have this track playing in the background while you ponder this pressing issue.
 
Let the chatting begin!
 

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Why are legal dramas so popular?
I really can't say this or that. But what I can say is it's another world different from IRL where we can hope for an idealistic type of justice, a dystopian future we wish can come to play now(The Devil Judge), or wish for the good guys to become winners, or tackle issues we see happening in real life. Legal dramas afford such and when it's a case whereby it isn't overly realistic or idealistic, it might attract crowd(EAW).

Why do screenwriters love this dramas so much?

I believe it's more of passing a message than telling a telling a story.
And we have more source material as in information, formal or informal, to provide context to build a story around law unlike other professions excluding medicine, chaebol nonsense, finance, or fashion. Not every writer has the skill set to build a story around other work specifications (On The Verge of Insanity) and maintain stamina to the end. While "the life of a vacuum salesperson, or a chaebol heir who decides to become a barber" would make a very good story and a big breathe of fresh air, I fear for a collosal disappointment simply because not all writers have the skillset. I won't call it laziness or a lack of ingenious thinking, they just might not have enough to construct such a world.

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I wonder if the source material is easy to find in the media or case law. It can offer the option of either one case per episode or stretch over the course of the series if it’s about the investigation process. In the mean time they can showcase the skills of the judge, lawyer prosecutor whoever is the main focus of the drama. It can be a way to raise a topical issues from a range of perspectives without being condemned for taking one side over another if it is a controversial issue. It also brings in extras/small parts to add variety to the core group of characters. There are opportunities to show the relationships within the team or with other agencies or the impact on the person’s personal life.

Other jobs it may be harder to get consultants to advise or the sets are too expensive/elaborate or showing the person at work is boring if all they do is sit in an office all day on a computer doing the same thing.
There must be a list of core professions that the audience can relate to easily so less time is needed on world building and more can be focused on the actual story. I think the medical and legal field stand out alongside the world of the celebrity and the historical world of palace.

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Talking about consultants, I doubt if they use them properly in dramas because of the aberrations they portray as what is real. In It's Beautiful Now, we saw the use of a consultant even though it wasn't shown on set. I do hope they employ consultants, the actual ones who currently practice law, or professors who have practiced before. I'm sure they had a proper consultant for Diary of a Prosecutor because the accolades on its realistic portrayal is praised here more times than one once it is raised.

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The creator of Diary was a former prosecutor themselves. That helped.

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Lol the track 😂

I don't know how the production/channels chose their dramas but I think it's always the same issue. They all chose the same theme during one year : sageuk, medical, law, time travel, etc...

In 2021, they released 7 sageuks, 2 in 2021-2022 and only 3 this year I think.

Maybe they have secret hidden rule, it's like dog's name when you have to use the letter of the year (T for 2022), Kdrama needs to follow the main theme?

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I once worked out the average no. of sageuks per yer for I think the last 7 ish years of something, and noticed with interest that sageuks appear to have a biennual cycle of prolificacy; every second year will be a higher sageuk year.

Unfortunately, for whatever reason, I didn't bother to actually SAVE the data for this, so I would have to go back and do it all again for that, and for any other things like, if the rate of sageuks has dropped over time etc, and I haven't compared or added 2022 yet either pffft.

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I find this analysis fascinating. Is it possible that it's every other year because it takes more time to prepare to produce a saguek? Like renting a suitable filming location? Just curious if there is an explanation for the bi-annual spike in sagueks.

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Honestly, I'm not sure. Could be budget issues. Could be other shifts in the industry responsible.
I feel like you'd be better to ask someone like @kiara about this - Kiara, help us!

I remember having a conversation with someone once about how more sageuks in general I think used to be made pre 2016, or rather more longer and larger ones did? But I don't remember the specifics to that or why, or if it could be related to this. *shrugs*

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You know as much, if not more. I stopped caring way before 2000.
I think I have data saved somewhere if I can find it.

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OT - @sicarius
Check out "ANDOR." My current crack.

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@kiara I'm waiting for a friend to watch it and review it for me: I'm too cynical about Disney Star Wars content to watch anything these days, no matter what people say about it :/

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I feel like the spike in sageuks in 2021 may have been pandemic related, since it’s easier to ignore the reality of everyone wearing masks if it’s set in the past. But it may just be a coincidence, since it seems an ongoing trend to spike periodically.

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@sicarius

I don't blame you. I gave Tony Gilroy a chance, and I have no regrets.

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A couple years back I really enjoyed the legal drama 'War of Prosecutors' (Lee Sun Kyun, Jung Ryeo-won), which was more of a workplace comedy than a courtroom drama. The only problem was each episode took FOREVER to get subbed, one assumes because of all of the legal jargon being thrown about.

An alternative to legal dramas might be 'On The Verge Of Insanity', an excellent series set in a *home appliance manufacturing company*. All the comedy, drama, intrigue, character growth but without the lawyers and judges.

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As someone who works in the legal field, I wish more realism in the course my settings, for instance. Most of the times I can’t apply enough suspension of disbelief into a drama when a crime is committed today, the suspect arrested in a day and the trial takes place the next week. I know time is one of the things dramas deal really bad with, but the legal systems takes time, and also time is needed to make sure all guarantees in the process are there. I know this is boring too, but I would appreciate this shown in a drama.

This is the reason I have been away this year from dramas like EAW, that everyone praised but I just couldn’t pass second episode, or Blind, sorry babe, it was too much for me. I bursted into laughter in the most inappropriate moments due to the foolishness of scenes that were meant to be solemn.

I guess this also happen to so many beanies who work in sanitary field when they watch doctors dramas… like when CPR is done on someone who’s still breathing…

I know it’s complicated because dramas have their own standards and you have to follow them, but in fact it is possible, and you won’t lose the pace. Just take a look at Forest of Secrets and learn.

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Forest of Secrets is a good example of a legal drama that respected time as a constraint in a legal process.

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According to an article I read in Korea Times, EAW's cases were based on actual cases from a lawyer's memoirs. That is, apparently the producers expanded on the original movie partly by dramatizing the lawyer's cases and giving our charming heroine a part in them.

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I was out on episode 1 with the total unrealistic court setting. I don’t care it the cases are real when people act in a court room like if they were in kindergarten.

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I would be interested to hear @oldawyer's take on this. I really don’t know why there was a surfeit of legal dramas this year. Maybe because they are generally less expensive to film, especially with the pandemic still a factor in filming conditions?

But in general

1. An obvious answer as to their durable popularity is that the way it is portrayed in dramas, the courtroom becomes a kind of theater, with the jury/audience/viewers watching the performance of the protagonists and responding to the twists and turns of the plot, or, in my case, noting how attractive the male/female leads look in robes.

2. Another obvious thing is the courtroom sets up like a sporting contest with distinct rules of engagement, allowing the good guy vs. bad guy competition or quite often, the good gal vs. bad guy, and sometimes, the good guy vs. bad gal. I always, always root for the woman in these contests, whether she represents good or evil, but see why I’m watching legal dramas, above.

3. Finally, the last obvious point is that instead of showing lawyers collecting hours and hours of depositions, they are portrayed as detectives, out battling the bad guys and risking their lives as they search for clues. So really the legal drama is just another form of detective drama.

There are a lot of distortions of the legal process, including the dramatic introduction of last second evidence-- “and here is the real knife that the culprit used on the victim, rather than the one he dipped in pigs blood and planted on the scene! (crowd gasps)”

But judging by my in-laws who are lawyers, I would say the biggest distortion of all is making them out to be charismatic adventure heros rather than sedentary organizers of case material who then drone on pretentiously at family dinners about subjects they no absolutely nothing about!

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Sorry, that last sentence should of course be a "know" nothing about" but that mistake is because I don't have a trusted paralegal by my side doing all my writing and proofreading for me.

While I'm at it, though, I did want to say that although I had my problems with Extraordinary Attorney Woo, I did like the cases in which she was involved, because they weren't cut and dried murder cases, but rather more complicated, every day issues that I debate too emotionally with my pompous relatives after we've had too much wine so that everybody leaves on bad terms with each other. (Am I anticipating U.S. Thanksgiving dinner? Yes.)

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Sedentary organizers of case material

Let me laugh first. This is so unfair, true and funny to note.

To the serious parts, I see the organizers more in the Judges than the prosecutors, attorneys, or public defenders. Juvenile Justice and Juror 8 immediately came to mind when I saw that sentence. I didn't know they had to pore through case material and evidences as well, well before trial begins.

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You are right, my characterization is totally unfair. Even my pompous in-laws are hard working and dedicated to their clients. In fact there is a great deal of similarity to what they do and what I do, as a history teacher--make arguments based on past evidence.
Perhaps my resentment of legal dramas comes because there are no similar shows showcasing historians' cleverness, bravery, and martial arts skills. Why no "Bad Historian" where a beautiful young historian "breaks all the rules" of historical interpretation, goes into the archive, and uses her agility and wooden sword to "teach a lesson" to all those attempting to misuse history to oppress others. It would be a huge hit, and would finally showcase the glamour of the history teaching profession, (and, of course the on-screen charisma of those who practice it!)

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I’m inclined to think now that the reason I dislike history is partly because I haven’t met a great teacher like you! At least my teachers never showed me martial art skills. That is a shame. 😔 Great teachers make all the difference, you know.

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@mmmmm Thanks, but I'm afraid that in the classroom I'm just a mild-mannered professor who drones on about facts and dates behind a lectern as students doze off.
Only in Dramabeans discussion threads can I reveal my true identity as a dynamic fighter, using the Korean martial art Hapkido to kick noble idiocy out the door of rom-coms, not to mention knocking the confusing stuffing out of overblown fantasy dramas involving soul shifting. Yes, its true, I'm a Bad Historian!

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@hacja If you use the same humour you've displayed in your commentary here then I'm sure your students enjoy your teaching.

I've loved all the history classes I've taken in my life and those teachers were awesome and especially humourous individuals. Even the professors I took history electives with, thank God.

But no, I'm not a History major.

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You have made a lot of very good points in your post, and I agree with them. I have written my own response to the question below.

I love your description of "sedentary organizers of materials"- it is so apt when describing the writing part of lawyering. Indeed, my second task tomorrow- after a brief telephonic hearing- will be to go through and organize the Attachments to a Complaint which I am about to file. Were a camera to be focused upon me I am certain that it would put any audience to sleep.

As for the last second introduction of evidence- when that happens what happens next is that the opposing counsel ask for the trial or hearing to be adjourned so that they can take a look at it- a request which is almost always granted. Trial by ambush is not tolerated in any legitimate legal system. Just because it makes for great drama does not mean that it would happen in real life.

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There are literally millions of case files for materials. It fits in a basic boilerplate story formula. However, the execution and substantive and procedural errors makes legal and medical dramas a no-go for me.

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Because they bring in the ratings, other than saeguks and the family dramas. From Again, My Life, Why Her, Big Mouth, Extraordinary Attorney Woo and One Dollar Lawyer. And ratings bring advertising bucks.

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As a viewer I like these type of puzzle solving stories (and I agree with @hacja that they are a flavour of detective stories with supposely less action and more discussion over the cases).
It is also reconforting that usually the good guys win and the bad guys are punished, unlike in real life. (unless the drama wants to emphasise the corruption of the system).

For the writters, I suppose that there is aplenty of material available, and that this workplace setting is easier to draw than in a particular industry.
I'm not sure I would call it laziness though, because the familiar setting (since it is a type of drama) ensure a relative a priori viewership amoung the fan of the genre, as everybody expect a certain set up.
Also it is quite difficult to incorporate "almost work discussions" in the plot. With the description of the various cases, the investigation and all things that have to be done to solve the cases, the personnages can interract and work with partial credibility. Unlike most workplace setting, were the work is limited to entering a meeting and going to after work party (except medical settings).

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First and foremost, thanks for coming up with this topic. I truly think it's so overdose this particular year. It'll be interesting to read what other people think about this.

1. The first reason is probably because well.. successful lawyers look cool. Talking about this from experience of being inspired by a certain English legal series *coughs Ally McBeal coughs*, it's interesting to see how these lawyers working in some top-notch law firm work and have fun. What's not interesting to see a profession dealing with justice that makes so much money and seems to have a so interesting life? What's not to like about watching these people living their quotes 'Work hard. Play harder' and 'You Only Live Once'? These people look INTERESTING. They look glamorous, witty, intelligent, and COOL. The glamorous life might seem appealing to young people's eyes.. to the point they might be intoxicated by the profession.

2. There are many crimes going unpunished in many places in the world when these perpetrators should be punished. But.. as we know.. because of so many reasons, these criminals seem to be able to escape the so deserved justice. Watching a legal drama where these people are punished by good people working to uphold the law is SATISFYING, to say the very least. It gives hope that at least in some place (i.e., in the fictional world), the good can still beat the bad, and that gives a sense of hope for many.

3. It costs less. Yes, I think legal dramas might need less production costs compared to some other types of dramas (e.g., fantasy, dramas which locations are abroad), and it was a big pro when these dramas that we have had had to be produced during the time when the pandemic was worse. Law case scenarios are quite easy to come up with, and there are resources available on the internet nowadays. With low production cost, it makes sense why many legal dramas were produced and aired this year.

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Very good point about the lower production costs. The judges and prosecutor's robes are probably permanently stored in Wardrobe and even the courtroom and office sets may be re-used in many cases. Even the actor's may have worked on so many of these before that perhaps even rehearsal time can be shortened in some cases as people already know how to play their roles.

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The reason for the over popularity of both legal and medical dramas is their natural settings: A physician is dealing with a patient's life and lawyers deal with their clients' lives.

When does someone seek out a lawyer? The answer is this happens when something really bad has happened or at least a major conflict as risen. There are exceptions to this: One goes to see a Patent Lawyer when one has created something of great value (Patent lawyers are happy lawyers as a result). Whether it is an accident, a crime, a promise not kept, a marriage that came apart, or a host of other ways in which life can be upset the issues the lawyers face are inherently dramatic issues.

Yet even if the issues are dramatic the way the law actually handles them is not- and deliberately so. The legal process is intentionally designed to deal with extremely dramatic issues in the least dramatic and dispassionate way possible: Through rules, evidence and a process designed to consider the matter in as objective a fashion as humanly possible rather than an emotional one. Outcomes are supposed to conform to statutes and precedent. If the outcome of a trial or a hearing does not seem correct the aggrieved party can appeal and point out where the error in reaching that outcome occurred.

There is a purpose to this. Before we bring the awesome power of the state to enforce that outcome, we want to make sure that, as often as possible, we got that outcome right.

That is why, even when a show as good as EXTRAORDINARY ATTORNEY WOO comes along it really does not depict the actual life of the lawyer and legal practice accurately. EAW did do a better job of showing us the issues of the law and the ethical dilemmas of legal practice than most shows but still did not really show us what really happens. For instance, a lawyer spends far more time writing than standing in a courtroom. Huge amounts of time are spent preparing or responding to Interrogatories and Requests for Production of Documents. And then going through the responses to them. Even if the lawyer does have to research the facts much of that actually occurs in written form, not in acting like a detective. Of course, witnesses are interviewed but it is seldom the lawyer who has talked to them first.

If people were to see what really happens, they would find that, for the most part, it would be more exciting to watch paint dry. Which is why drama writers have invented this alternative dramatic version of the justice system. That alternative version is a far cry from reality BUT definitely more entertaining.

That alternative version of the justice system has been around for a long time and is not unique to K-dramas. Even the courtroom scenes were wildly inaccurate: Picture Perry Mason cross-examining the Prosecution witness and said prosecutor leaping to his feet with the objection that Perry was asking leading questions. Problem: Leading questions (the ones which begin...

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with the phrase "isn't it true that..." are not only permitted but expected on cross examination and, indeed, if possible, all of the cross-examiner's questions should be leading ones.

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Other folks have already weighed in on this with far more authority than I have, but when I first read the question, my first thought was that a legal setting is a convenient one for a modern battle between right and wrong.

It works well if a writer is trying to convey the righting of an injustice, or the punishment of a wrongdoer, and those things are sometimes less tangible and more difficult to portray in other settings. And those kinds of topics will be perennially interesting and engaging to people. Who hasn't suffered an injustice or felt that someone who did something wrong got away with it? So we can watch a lawyer (or prosecutor or judge) do the thing that we weren't able to do, and it's satisfying.

You can also introduce a lot of complexity into legal settings, so if you're writing a drama that is grappling with what is right and what is wrong, or whether a person or action is full-on evil or more nuanced, a legal drama is an obvious choice.

I just finished Bad Prosecutor, which is a far from perfect drama, but one thing I loved was the constant reminder that "prosecutor" and "swordsman" are the same word. A lone swordsman fighting for justice has always been a compelling story, and I think the same is true of legal dramas. There were just waaaaay too many of them this year, so here's hoping dramaland spaces them out a little better in the future!

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Having known a few actual lawyers, I can tell you the last thing that they want their kids to be is a lawyer. I think dramas flock to them is that their settings and conflicts lend themselves to story-telling. Doctor shows are the same. The conflict is life and death—or ruined life. There’s a backstory that one can make compelling relatively easily. I don’t want to say doing these shows is lazy, but it kind of is.

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