Brooklyn DA

There’s no denying that the circumstances under which CBS airs its six-part documentary series Brooklyn DA are suspicious. Current district attorney Charles Hynes has served Kings County (which encompasses Brooklyn) since 1989 and has several challengers in the upcoming September primary. One of his opponents, former Manhattan assistant district attorney Abe George, even filed a suit in attempt to block the show from making it to air. To George, this series, constitutes a donation from CBS to Hynes’ campaign at a time when he is particularly vulnerable due to mounting criticism of the department’s prosecution record.

The New York Times took the political suggestions too far, writing “it is a very short step from some of the segments to election-influencing conclusions. That a vote against Mr. Hynes is a vote against police officers killed in the line of duty… in favor of human trafficking… against a lot of selfless, hard working public servants.” To anyone who doesn’t live in Brooklyn, those political stakes are largely irrelevant, and reading into the idea that CBS produced the documentary specifically to endorse Hynes shouldn’t come up. If that is CBS’ subversive intent, they don’t do a good job of showing it. Hynes doesn’t appear in the premiere, and one judge mentions the DA without referencing his name briefly while summarizing a case dismissal.

If anything, this is an attempt to depict the breadth of the work taken on by a DA’s office, not just the three-person acting team portrayed in Law & Order that tries an incredibly wide variety of cases. To anyone unaware of the DA race in Kings County, Brooklyn DA is yet another workplace reality show that cuts corners and fails to fully depict the process it hopes to enlighten.

At first, it seems as though Brooklyn DA will follow three cases: a sting operation in a suspected art theft on Long Island, the homicide investigation of a shooting death of a police officer, and a human trafficking/prostitution case against an alleged pimp. But only one of these cases plays out over the course of the episode, due to an unreliable witness that causes dismissal of the significant charges.

The focus is on the attorneys and how they prepare for a case, but not in exhausting detail. That’s why we get a scene of Kathleen going through a revision meeting for her opening statement in a human trafficking case but get no real sense of the evidence in the case outside the scope of prepping the primary victim as a witness. It’s an interesting bit of behind-the scenes work, going through a script with a boss to inject more drama, hook a jury into a story, instead of beating them over the head with legal jargon. It also happens to be extremely boring to watch three lawyers sit around having a revising session.

And though Kathleen appears to be a dedicated, caring attorney, the show does capture her personal life, cooking pasta at home with her husband. The producers go out of their way to show her as a deeply involved young ADA who takes great pains to make her witness feel respected and valued, which is why Kathleen is so devastated when the case falls apart.

The other cases only being short arcs, to be continued later in the series. The ADA involved in the art theft is an assortment of quirks, from constant eating habits to wearing an unfortunate hat to staging pep talks with the guy at his local deli. Though on its own, the intricacies of the case may be interesting, when contrasted against human trafficking and the murder of a police officer, it seems unwise to devote time to a few missing paintings from a wealthy estate, even if they hold a lot of sentimental value to the family. Instead of trial work or standard investigation, this section is all setup, attempting to gain actual hard evidence against a suspect identified through a lot of legwork and research, showing just how long attorneys can work on a case from start to finish.

The police officer’s murder gets the least amount of focus, teased perhaps for an upcoming episode. The homicide bureau attorney is an extremely busy guy, shown constantly juggling a cell phone and his office phone. But the emphasis is on the officer’s family—his four daughters and ex-wife—and the attorney’s final statement that something like that can be incredibly motivating for a prosecutor. But the show leaves out the possibility that such fervor can lead to foolish risk in trying to bring a suspected killer to justice. Brooklyn DA is careful to portray every single attorney character as an upstanding citizen following every little rule, and if something doesn’t go their way, it wasn’t anyone’s fault in the office. That invincibility is where I can buy an intentional slant.

I participated in mock trial during high school, but never really pursued the passing interest beyond theatrical participation. I loved watching Law & Order with my father, and I was eager to see the more intricate portrayal in Law & Order: Trial By Jury, which focused exclusively on the criminal trial portion of a case. Look, I can tell just how inaccurate a lot of those shows are, but unlike my stated affinity for any kind of entertainment featuring firefighters—I think due to my inability to relate to putting oneself in that kind of immediate danger—I like legal dramas because in another life I could have pursued that profession. Whenever I see something like Brooklyn DA, I envision myself working as a criminal prosecutor. Perhaps not the eccentric, hat-wearing ADA talking about hidden cameras to catch an art thief, but the variety of jobs within the DA’s office is the appeal of a wide-ranging documentary series.

I’m still incredibly intrigued by all the things that go on within a metropolitan DA’s office, and the variety of personalities trying different cases, from the intricate investigative planning to writing and rewriting opening statements. I’m interested enough in the other two cases to watch and see if they conclude next week, but unless each episode contains hooks into different investigations, I doubt I’ll watch the entire series. Claiming the show is a calculated political move still strikes me as wildly overstating the impact of a show like this, but to the current DA’s opponents, this might seem like a six-hour infomercial for the incumbent. To anyone else, if Brooklyn DA is intended as a piece of political propaganda, it fails by making the prime beneficiary an invisible presence who doesn’t affect the proceedings. Otherwise, it’s a mildly intriguing but mostly boring docudrama. 

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