David Feige – law professor, lecturer and co-creator of TNT’s hit series Raising the Bar – worked as a public defender for more than a dozen years. Raising the Bar wouldn’t exist if not for that experience in the courtroom.
“The viewpoint of public defenders has never been publicly aired or fully understood,” Feige says. “It’s tragically mischaracterized.”
Feige wrote Indefensible: One Lawyer’s Journey into the Inferno of American Justice, a book that provides an insider’s view of being a public defender in the Bronx.
Feige sent Indefensible to 10-time Emmy(R)-winning producer Steven Bochco (Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue), hoping for a series about public defenders. Bochco loved the book but didn’t feel a show would work. “He basically told me, ‘Your clients are generally disreputable and distasteful, so doing a show about public defenders representing that type of folks couldn’t survive,'” Feige says.
Bochco, however, floated the idea of telling stories from both sides: public defenders and prosecutors. “I agreed to do it,” Feige says, “as long as the public defenders were also portrayed heroically. I want the show to be about the humanity of those on trial.”
It’s a good thing Feige agreed, because Bochco had already sold TNT on the idea. Raising the Bar premiered in September 2008 with 8.6 million viewers, a cable record.
The show follows the cases and lives of lawyers in the public defender’s and district attorney’s offices, as well as those who sit in judgment on their cases. It stars Mark-Paul Gosselaar (NYPD Blue) as idealistic defender Jerry Kellerman (based largely on Feige himself); Gloria Reuben (ER) as his passionate and protective boss Rosalind Whitman; and Jane Kaczmarek (Malcolm in the Middle) as imperious Judge Trudy Kessler, who has dreams of becoming the next district attorney.
Feige says Raising the Bar is realistic. “If you were to watch most crime dramas,” he says, “you’d think the majority of crimes committed are rapes and murders.” While there are some high-profile cases on Raising the Bar, most deal with small crimes.
“In a lot of ways, it’s easy to do a story about a murderer or serial rapist or psychopath facing the death penalty,” Feige says. “The trick to doing a more complex or nuanced show is finding and explicating the stakes in an everyday case.”
As a former public defender, Feige occasionally struggled with giving a voice to the prosecution. “Steven said that drama doesn’t exist unless you have a titanic clash between opposing worldviews,” Feige says. “If the public defenders are always righteous and the DAs are always mustache-twirling, that’s not drama.”
Though Feige loves his TV writer life, he still misses the courtroom. “The reason our show is so much fun to watch is precisely what made it so exciting to live – every day is a battle for justice, in which freedom is quite literally at stake.”
Raising the Bar returns to TNT for its second season Monday, June 8. Check your local listings or www.tnt.tv for more information and showtimes. David Feige is co-creator, supervising producer and writer for the series.