Hollywood Movies

This Genre Is Dominating TV

May 29, 202410 Mins Read


  • Legal dramas are one of the most popular genres of American fiction, and they thrived during the ’90s to the 2000s.
  • Legal dramas faded from the spotlight as audience habits and interests changed.
  • Legal dramas moved to TV and streaming, but there’s still a slim chance they could return to cinemas.

Even in a pop culture landscape that’s dominated by comic book movies and resurrected franchises, the more grounded and character-driven legal genre continues to thrive. Despite their lack of flashy effects and nostalgia, courtroom drama series and movies attract tons of viewers. This year, Suits became one of the most-watched shows in Netflix’s history. Similarly, Better Call Saul — Saul Goodman’s Breaking Bad spin-off and solo series — exceeded all expectations and became one of the most beloved (if underappreciated) legal dramas of the past decade.

While it’s nice to know that legal dramas are enjoying a modicum of success in TV and streaming, it’s hard not to get a bit nostalgic for the time when the genre didn’t just regularly have movies in theaters but ruled the box office as well. Roughly 20 years ago, legal dramas were some of the most successful pictures around, and cinematic lawyers were loved by audiences around the world. Unfortunately and inevitably, times changed, and not always for the better. Now, movies about lawyers and their cases seem like a distant memory or an impossibility altogether. This wasn’t always the case, and it only happened due to circumstances beyond the genre’s and its filmmakers’ control.

Movies About Lawyers and Their Cases Date Back as Far Back as 1908

  • Legal dramas started out as reenactments of high-profile courtroom cases.
  • Legal dramas evolved into fictionalized courtroom proceedings.
  • Legal dramas slowly shifted focus away from the cases to the lawyers themselves.


10 Best Hollywood Films of 1939

The Golden Age of Hollywood generated many classics, but films like The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind made 1939 Hollywood’s greatest year.

Legal dramas have been a part of American pop culture for the better part of a century. While it’s possibly not the first of its kind, Falsely Accused! from 1908 is one of the earliest-recorded American legal dramas. These movies’ appeal stemmed from their reenactments of high-profile trials that weren’t always open for public viewing. This was especially true for such movies made before the advent of television and live broadcasts. Americans loved these kinds of movies so much that many of Golden Age Hollywood’s founding movies were legal dramas.

The two most influential and beloved legal movies of this era were undoubtedly 12 Angry Men and To Kill a Mockingbird. To this day, these two are still being remade, referenced and parodied in everything from other movies to cartoons. It’s worth noting that 12 Angry Men and To Kill a Mockingbird were based on books rather than cases ripped from the headlines. It could be said that their joint success helped birth the legal thriller. Instead of simply recreating a courtroom proceeding for audiences, legal thrillers dramatized and sensationalized fictional lawyers’ lives both inside and outside the courtroom.

Beginning in the late ’50s up to the late ’80s, legal dramas picked up steam and became one of the most financially reliable movie genres. Given how crime fiction (both from the perspective of cops and criminals) also took shape around the same time, it made sense that movies that showed the litigious side of law enforcement also rose in popularity. It also helped that legal dramas were also great avenues for character studies, ethical quandaries and social commentary. In brief, courtrooms and lawyers made for great storytelling. Notable classics from this era include Anatomy of a Murder, …And Justice For All, and The Trial.

The ’90s and 2000s Were the Best Years for Real and Fictional Movie Lawyers

  • Legal dramas exploded in popularity during the ’90s all the way to the 2000s.
  • Legal dramas explored different genres and became more than just dramatized trials and hearings.
  • Legal dramas were some of the most popular and successful movies of the ’90s.


Every Law & Order: SVU ADA, Ranked

The SVU detectives have received help from many ADAs across the drama’s 24-season run, including Rafael Barba and Alexandra Cabot.

Legal dramas really exploded in fame and relevance from the ’90s to the 2000s. There’s no concrete reason for this sudden boom, but it could be associated with prestige TV taking off during this time. It could also be hypothesized that this was an aftereffect of the stranglehold that crime fiction (most notably those that took the cops’ side) had on pop culture in the ’80s. No other legal show proved this better than Law & Order (especially its iconic spin-off, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit), which began in 1990. The beloved and still-ongoing series was one-half police procedural and one-half legal thriller.

From the ’90s to the 2000s, legal dramas seemed inescapable. Movies about lawyers, the clients they represented or interrogated, the cases they took, and the fallout of their trials were practically everywhere. This led to star-studded legal dramas like A Few Good Men, The Firm,The Pelican Brief, and A Time to Kill. Richard Gere famously made a name for himself during these years by starring in definitive legal dramas like Primal Fear and Red Corner. Legal movies that dramatized cases from distant history and contemporary true-to-life stories were also big hits. Notable examples include Amistad, Erin Brokovich, The Insider, Thank You For Smoking and The People vs. Larry Flynt. Some even won the highest honors imaginable. A great example is Philadelphia, for which Tom Hanks won the Oscar for Best Actor in 1994 by portraying one of the movie’s two focal lawyers.

Lawyers were such a popular subject and movie hero that they also starred in genres that were barely associated with the legal drama, if at all. For example, Liar Liar and My Cousin Vinny were comedies that lampooned the legal profession and practice. Ally McBeal satisfied a similar itch, the only difference being that it was a TV sitcom. The genre-redefining Legally Blonde duology was a fusion of a typical courtroom drama with what used to be called “chick flicks.” Meanwhile, Gere arguably peaked as a cinematic lawyer with the period musical and murder trial Chicago.

Similarly, Martin Scorsese’s 1991 remake of Cape Fear was a dark thriller that was more interested in the aftermath of a trial than in showing what happened in the courtroom. The Devil’s Advocate was a supernatural horror movie where an overly ambitious defense lawyer had Satan for his boss. It goes without saying that this period gave cinematic legal dramas some of the best and most creative years they ever had. Even better, many legal dramas from this time were critically acclaimed box office successes, whether they were based on real cases or not. ​

  • Legal dramas seemingly died out in the late 2000s.
  • Legal dramas and other mid-budget genres were slowly pushed out of cinemas by blockbusters.
  • Legal dramas moved to TV and streaming and continue to thrive there.


10 Best Courtroom Drama Films, Ranked

From 12 Angry Men to Kramer vs. Kramer, these courtroom dramas have stuck with viewers for years, proving they’re the best in the genre.

Unfortunately, and just like any trend in Hollywood, legal dramas plateaued at some point and seemingly died out for a time. No one legal drama bombed so badly with critics and general audiences that it killed cinematic lawyers overnight the way infamous (if over-hated) flops like Die Another Day killed the super-spy movie. The worst that the legal drama did was, like every other popular movie genre before and after it, oversaturate the market and exhaust audiences. That being said, the legal drama fell victim to a pivotal paradigm shift whose effects can still be felt today.

From the late 2000s onwards, blockbusters and high-concept movies that prioritized spectacle over everything else dominated the box office and zeitgeist. More grounded and character-driven genres like legal thrillers, dramas, comedies, and romances were still made during this time, but they were gradually pushed out of the spotlight in favor of multi-million blockbusters. This was especially true for giant tentpoles that starred superheroes or were nostalgic franchise revivals. Soon enough and by the 2020s, legal dramas and other mid-budget genres were effectively driven out of cinemas.

Legal dramas were then left with no choice but to retreat to TV and, most recently, streaming. Based on suspicions that were both practical and unwarranted, studios hesitated to fund and distribute legal dramas because they fear that these movies lack audience demand. This was further exacerbated by the rise of streaming and the services’ deliberately vague algorithms and viewership models. Now more than ever, studios played it safe and hedged their bets by only funding movies they knew would turn a profit right away.

Audiences Clearly Want More Movies and TV Shows About Lawyers

  • Even on TV and streaming, legal dramas are still consistent in terms of output and quality.
  • Cinematic legal dramas are slowly but surely making a comeback.
  • It may still be a long time before legal dramas return to their glory days.


10 K-Dramas To Watch If You Loved Crash Landing On You

Crash Landing on You had the perfect mix of laughter and tears, but more K-dramas give the same vibes, like Something in the Rain.

That’s not to say that the legal drama is dead. Although it’s nowhere near as successful or influential as it was just a generation ago, the genre is still pumping out solid movies and series. TV and streaming are home to some of the best legal series airing right now, such as Netflix’s The Lincoln Lawyer and Prime Video’s reality show Jury Duty. The aforementioned Better Call Saul reaffirmed its place as one of history’s greatest prequels and TV shows ever made with its highly acclaimed sixth and final season. Netflix’s gritty legal thriller Daredevil and Disney+’s legal sitcom She-Hulk: Attorney at Law proved that there is still a desire for creative hybrid legal shows. K-Dramas, in particular, proved to be one of the best places for legal dramas to thrive. Ongoing series and miniseries such as Diary of a Prosecutor, Extraordinary Attorney Woo, and Hyena became global sensations thanks to streaming.

Movies about lawyers may not be blockbuster hits anymore, and their individual qualities greatly vary, but they’re still being made. More importantly, people continue to watch them. Throwbacks to old-school legal dramas such as William Friedkin’s remake of The Cain Mutiny Court-Martial, The Judge and Roman J. Israel, Esq. plus period legal accounts like Just Mercy and The Trial of the Chicago 7 still have an audience. It’s also worth noting that more than half of Oppenheimer is a historical legal drama, and it became the highest-grossing biopic and second-highest-earning R-rated movie in history. Though it’s an encouraging precedent, Oppenheimer is currently the exception to the rule.

Given the current status quo and how studios are becoming even more averse to anything that isn’t a surefire blockbuster, it may still be a while before legal dramas return to cinemas or enjoy even a bit of their former glory. Thankfully, movie lawyers are far from extinct. To quote legal parlance, the legal drama is currently taking a prolonged recess. Hollywood and audiences have a cyclical tendency to revive dormant genres and prop them up once more. It’s a matter of when, not if, the pendulum swings in favor of the cinematic legal drama and brings the movies and audiences back to court.

Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related Posts


Get our latest downloads and information first.
Complete the form below to subscribe to our weekly newsletter.

No, thank you. I do not want.
100% secure your website.