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Legal Eagles Fly High Through TV Airwaves

New crop of law shows reenergizes one of TV's most popular genres

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You can't say there's no justice on television this fall.

Virtually every network has at least one program on the air with judges or lawyers in lead roles, and more are on the way.

New legal dramas like Fox's "Ally McBeal," CBS's "Michael Hayes," and ABC's "The Practice" (which premired last winter) join established series such as CNN's "Burden of Proof," launched in 1995, and NBC's "Law & Order," which just won its first Emmy for best drama and is now in its eighth season.

Both "Ally McBeal" and "The Practice" are set within the walls of a small Boston law firm. Calista Flockhart plays McBeal, a twentysomething New England lawyer whose law office employs her former lover. The quirky drama/comedy, one of the season's hottest new shows, follows McBeal's romantic adventures, which usually involve computer-animated, Walter Mitty-like fantasies.

"Michael Hayes" is a moody, nocturnal drama featuring David Caruso as an ex-cop-turned-prosecutor, while "The Practice" is a high-energy suspense series whose gritty cast members like to keep viewers on the edge of their seats. "The Practice" is so well liked by critics that many television writers bitterly protested ABC's recent decision to move the show to its new Saturday-night slot.

Two reality-based legal series in syndication are also getting a positive verdict: "Judge Judy," now in its second season, and the new version of "The People's Court," with the former New York City mayor, Ed Koch, as justice of the peace.

"Judge Judy" is presided over by Judith Sheindlin, a Brooklyn native who flies out to Los Angeles each week to dispense her "tough judge" brand of justice. Ms. Sheindlin, a family court judge in New York, renders decisions in the style of a no-nonsense mother with little patience for squabbling litigants. It's a style that seems to be working: "Judge Judy" airs on 162 stations nationwide.

The popularity of today's legal eagles on television may be at an all-time high, thanks in part to Court TV, says Laurie Levinson, associate dean at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles and a legal commentator for CBS.

"People got hooked on the O.J. Simpson trial by watching Court TV," she says. "Court TV also proved viewers have a humongous appetite for these courtroom cases. A lot of the new shows that deal with law are playing off that appetite."

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