NBC’s “Bluff City Law” stands as yet another reminder that film and television subsidies fail to deliver on their promised benefits. As an attorney and Tennessee native, I was initially excited to hear about this new legal drama based in Memphis, a city that served as the backdrop for legal classics such as “The Firm” and “The Rainmaker.” But then I watched the show and learned about the millions of dollars both Tennessee and Memphis paid NBC to subsidize its agenda-driven programming.
In essence, “Bluff City Law’s” version of the law is plucked straight from the imagination of a leftist plaintiff’s attorney. The series begins with protagonist Sydney Strait (portrayed by Caitlin McGee) working at an evil big law firm. On behalf of a tobacco company, she grills a plaintiff on whether other chewing tobacco brands—or maybe marital infidelities—might be to blame for his illness. But Sydney soon sees the light after her adopted mother dies, sending her back to the boutique plaintiff’s firm, Strait & Associates, owned by her adopted father.
The first two episodes are not-so-subtle swipes at Monsanto. In both, the series stumbles through legal procedure with far less adroitness than an old “Law & Order” episode. Plaintiffs’ witnesses, even when not called on rebuttal, routinely testify after defense witnesses. Judges rule on the admissibility of key expert witnesses from the bench with no briefing and little explanation. Appellate courts issue decisions immediately after oral argument.
“Bluff City’s” grasp on the substance of the law is predictably tenuous. In the second episode, characters brainstorm ways to sue the Monsanto-substitute company in a less sympathetic version of the case Monsanto won 9–0 at the U.S. Supreme Court. One attorney comments that antitrust law is a matter for Congress, despite the fact that there are private causes of action under both federal and Tennessee law for anticompetitive conduct. There is not a single judicial ruling or discussion with clients about how Tennessee law currently (unless the plaintiffs’ bar prevails in a pending suit) caps punitive damages to prevent the tens of millions in punitive damages that Memphis juries are wont to award.
A judge allows inadmissible testimony, which Strait & Associates procures in defiance of a court order against such shenanigans, to decide a case without overruling the jury as a matter of law. And despite the rather simple rule that someone who dies without a will or any relatives forfeits her money to the state, one subplot involves Sydney deciding instead that one intestate woman’s estate should go to a tree in a park where she liked to sit.
Worse, the series has adopted the cases-ripped-from-the-headlines-with-a-leftist-spin model that has sunk “Law & Order: SVU’s” ratings of late. The third episode, which aired a day before the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments about homosexual and transgender employment law, started that trend. The plot revolved around a law professor’s attempt to force society to recognize him as decades younger than his actual age. The professor and his attorneys parrot the language from Obergefell and similar cases. If one has the right to define one’s meaning of the universe, why shouldn’t one have the right to define one’s age?
The judge is mostly sympathetic but ultimately declines the professor’s request, determining it does not constitute one of the “real cases about gender identity.” Initially, it seemed the professor wanted to alter his age to make romantic inroads with one of his students. But it turns out that she was a he, and he was the professor’s son who viewed the test case as a ploy to help with transgender advocacy.
The leftward slant continues in episode four with a parody of the Charlottesville rally, which devolves into a white supremacist shooting an innocent young woman. The shooter is convicted, but Elijah Strait (none other than Jimmy Smits) wants revenge on the three-piece-suit-wearing racist who prompted such actions with his “hate speech.”
Elijah wins the jury over after a hypocritical outburst in court where he threatens to beat the rally organizer before being constrained and held in contempt—the second time in the first four episodes for Elijah, in addition to the two contempt citations his daughter earns. Yet the system rewards Elijah’s unprofessional behavior. An ACLU attorney notes that Elijah likely staged the outburst just as he faked a courtroom fall in a prior slip-and-fall lawsuit, but it is alright because “we’re all on the same side.”
The fifth episode was no better, with a little girl deciding that she wants to sue the federal government for global warming after a flood. (She settles for suing the Army Corps of Engineers and then a slew of defendants added mid-trial because they were “not working together” to solve political problems.) Coming next week, Strait & Associates have a client who wants to violate Tennessee law by committing assisted suicide. “Bluff City Law” has perhaps forgotten that Republicans watch television, too.
Why the Republican-led Tennessee government decided to support such an ideologically charged and shoddy show is beyond me. Tennessee is spending $2.5 million to subsidize the program. Memphis and Shelby County promised another $1.4 million, and Memphis Tourism threw $300,000 in on top of that. Normally in a capitalist economy, businesses bear the risks and rewards of their efforts. We pay taxes, such as the $400 professional privilege tax my wife pays each year to keep her Tennessee law license, for a legal system that allows fair competition.
Here, however, Tennessee taxpayers are shelling out money for a struggling television show that has no doubt already turned off moderates and conservatives. “Bluff City Law” recently canceled an order for an additional six episodes due to poor ratings. The show may have spent some money in Tennessee, but out-of-state actors, directors, and writers will pocket more.
On top of its ideological agenda, the show does a disservice to Memphis. White supremacists do not infest its streets today (the media’s demand for racists to ridicule tends to outpace supply.) Plus, in “Bluff City Law” you are more likely to see a Boston transplant or a lesbian attorney than a socially conservative Christian, regardless of the demographics of West Tennessee. Memphis tourism surely will not benefit from Sydney Strait and her brother criticizing the concept of eating ribs either.
In theory, “Bluff City Law” would also attract industry to a lackluster Memphis economy. But reminding businesses how plaintiff-friendly Memphis courts are is likely to have the opposite effect. That concern is no doubt one of the reasons why the Memphis Regional Megasite still sits vacant after the state has poured tens of millions of dollars into it. In Tennessee alone, Nashville, Knoxville, and Chattanooga are all more attractive urban options for companies looking to relocate.
Perhaps the main benefit of “Bluff City Law” is that the Memphis City Council got to rub elbows with actors and television executives. One might say that was evident from the get-go.