First person: How the Bill Cosby trial was — and wasn’t — like some of Hollywood’s best legal dramas

In Entertainment
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A journalist from a big city wakes up in the same one-horse Pennsylvania town every day hoping for something — anything — to be different. ‎He trudges off to see men in long black garments make pronouncements, wondering why his life has come to this — wondering why, no matter what he does, the next morning the clock radio will go off at exactly the same time and leave him to do it all over again.

For two weeks this month I the sexual-assault trial in Norristown, Pa. Centering on an alleged attack on former Temple University basketball staffer , it was an extremely serious and often disturbing affair. It also, at times, reminded me of “Groundhog Day,” especially at its end, when each day of jury deliberations was and then ended pretty much where it began. (The judge last weekend.)

I’d covered legal stories before, including a case in front of the Supreme Court. But I’ve never been on one with a defendant this high-profile, and never for so long; I entered a Cosby courtroom for the first time

As a member of the Calendar staff, my reportorial knobs are usually ‎set to arts and entertainment stories. And though my mind was tuned in to legal maneuvering, it was hard sometimes not to see the proceedings through a pop-cultural filter.

When a witness noted how he wasn’t a doctor as he sat just feet from Cosby, my mind immediately went to “Like Dr. Huxtable?” The witness had the same thought, because he slipped in a reference a moment later.

As proceedings wore on with a kind of self-perpetuating logic, the trial engendered among many reporters an esprit de corps, a gallows humor and severely warped notions of proper diet and sleep — in others words, it was like every film festival I’ve ever attended.

At one point I even began to wonder if we might one day find out that this little island we were on, with its own rules and hierarchies and weird occurrences, wasn’t real at all and we’d all died in the initial plane crash. I might have spent an idle moment scanning the jury box for Jacob.

But it was the ‎legal back-and-forth that triggered the bulk of the pop-cultural ideas.

Not like TV

I grew up with courtroom dramas. My father loves the genre, and showed me everything from “To Kill a Mockingbird” to “Inherit the Wind” to “12 Angry Men.” I was almost old enough to appreciate “Matlock” in prime time; I certainly caught the 1990s’ wave of “Law & Order.” And in my lifetime Hollywood has produced a slew of trial-based movies, of all stripes: “The Verdict” and “Music Box,” “From the Hip” and “A Few Good Men,” “Jagged Edge” and “The Judge.”

The truth is, we’re drowning in legal stories, sometimes even more than we realize. Which is what makes a close-up view of an event like the Cosby trial so familiar and so jarring.

As the judge in the case kept reminding the jurors (and as anyone who’s served on a jury realizes) real-life trials move much slower than they do on television. Questions are meant to set up other questions; what might be dramatic moments end up in a fusillade of procedural points.

The fact that it was a celebrity — that one of the most famous comedians in American history was having his fate debated in front of him — didn’t materially up the drama. Even moments that in fact were big often came camouflaged in legalese.

At one point the defense tried to introduce a witness who claimed that the alleged victim had told her she planned to launch an extortion plot against a Cosby-like figure. It was a key witness that could change the tide of the case — and was overruled and dispensed with by a simple objection. The whole process was so quick, and so dry, it was only a day later that we learned the significance. The stakes in the trial were strong. But the shape could be closing credit perfunctory.

There were times, it should be said, when the level of theatricality was high. Cosby’s lead attorney, Brian McMonagle, could easily have been working on his Atticus Finch audition in his closing argument; at one moment he actually looked to the heavens and said, “Why are we here?”

Meanwhile, when Constand’s mother testified about her to the account her daughter gave her it left the gallery in tears. The testimony of and another accuser, was potent and persuasive in ways that are hard to convey; if you read the transcript you’d send it to the Sundance screenwriting lab so a young writer could learn from its example.

And the dramatic confrontation with a discredited expert witness when a Facebook post about their true beliefs was unearthed put that to shame.

Still, what unfolded was frequently more about the prosaic than personalities. The district attorney, Kevin Steele, gave a closing that stretched more than two hours. It featured many slides with detailed breakdown of the charges and the kind of winding delivery that would have kept a film editor gainfully employed for days.

Layers of subtext

Yet I realized it would be a mistake to confuse the dynamic of the events with what was actually happening. The layers of subtext were all there, and if characters like Perry Mason have in one way sold us a bill of goods, they also have quietly instilled in us a sense of how things really work.

For instance, the glimpses of the jury were fleeting and not very revealing as the 18 citizens from Pittsburgh, on the other side of the state, shuffled in and out of the courtroom stone-faced. But as later accounts showed, it turns out they’d been and arguing passionately, just before we saw them. It was all there — we just didn’t always have empirical access to it.

The screen entertainment that kept coming to mind throughout the trial was “The Night Of,” the HBO series that debuted almost exactly a year ago. In it, plays a Pakistani American accused of murdering of a rich young white woman, the courtroom moments could move slowly, sometimes painfully. But you could feel the weight of each procedural motion, the consequences in each lawyerly throat-clear.

A number of times during the Cosby trial I found myself mentally accessing that show — the colorful defense attorney, the methodical prosecutor, the clipped bureaucracy of the police witnesses. Most important I thought of how dramatic the series’ episodes, which like the Cosby case also dealt with gender and race and power and memory, could be beneath the banality.

And that left me encouraged. Because for all the decades of Hollywood legal tales, it was one of the most recent pieces that seemed to get it most right — that demonstrated how exciting it could all be by not seeming very exciting at all.

Our fictional courtroom stories were getting better, more accurate — giving a sense, in a couple of hours of screen time, what it was like to observe 18 months of legal maneuvering. It made me heartened by the experience. Even if Andie MacDowell wasn’t waiting to tell me she loved me at the end of it.

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