The coronavirus pandemic has shut down production on most series television. Seasons are ending early, and the fall television season is all but assured of not happening for the first time since network television began more than 70 years ago.
But the CBS legal drama “All Rise” is bucking the trend just a bit with a new episode (Monday, 8 p.m., Channel 2) produced after the shelter-in-place orders went into effect. How? It was written, acted, directed and produced by people staying at home.
The show’s writers conferenced via social media. The show’s stars went online — using FaceTime, WebEx and Zoom — to perform their parts. Digital backgrounds were inserted behind the actors, and the post-production was all done remotely.
A cinematographer traveling alone in a vehicle filmed the near-deserted streets of the nation’s second-largest city.
“It’s a unique chance for our ‘All Rise’ family to band together — in our different homes, even cities — to tell a story about resilience, justice and the power of community,” said executive producer Greg Spottiswood.
Few TV shows are producing new content
“All Rise” is on a very short list of shows that have produced episodes during the coronavirus pandemic.
• Daytime and late-night talk shows continue with the hosts and guests connecting via social media.
• “American Idol” is featuring its finalists singing from home.
• “Saturday Night Live” has delivered a pair of episodes with cast members performing while self-isolating.
• The “Parks and Recreation” cast and crew reunited for a special episode that aired Thursday in which the characters connected online during the pandemic.
There’s no indication when the television industry will be able to get back into regular production.
It wouldn’t work for every series. Magnum, MacGyver and all the NCIS teams aren’t going to chase bad guys during the pandemic, and “Bob Hearts Abishola” but he can’t really show it if they can’t be on the same soundstage.
But Spottiswood and his team came up with a plausible plot line that works for “All Rise,” an entertaining and often thought-provoking hour that revolves around newly appointed judge Lola Carmichael (Simone Missick) and focuses on the legal system in Los Angeles. With Angelenos under a mandatory shelter-in-place order, Lola is authorized by her boss, Judge Lisa Benner (Marg Helgenberger), to conduct a “virtual trial” via social media for a case involving two brothers and a stolen car.
Emily Lopez (Jessica Camacho) is the defense attorney, Mark Callan (Wilson Bethel) is the prosecutor, and multiple couples who aren’t sheltering in the same place find that’s a surefire way to complicate romantic relationships.
It’s an unusual move for a series that has been rather quietly taking risks since it premiered in September. It’s one of a handful of TV dramas with black, female leads — which have been virtually nonexistent on CBS. (There was only one other, “Extant,” in recent memory.)
And CBS — a network that had come under harsh criticism for its lack of diversity and female leads — bought a show in which not only is an African American woman the lead, but five of the seven primary characters are female and four are black, Hispanic or Asian.
Refreshingly, “All Rise” isn’t all about the characters’ ethnicities. Even more refreshingly, it doesn’t try to pretend we live in a post-racial world where ethnicity doesn’t matter.
“It was fundamental to our vision of the show that it was representative of the city that we live in,” Spottiswood said. “That was essential to our whole concept of the show — what does the justice system look like through this lens?
“And so when a case comes up that intersects with race or intersects with issues of gender ... we acknowledge that our characters will have a very specific point of view and that will inform the decisions or their behaviors.”
The writing team Spottiswood has assembled also is diverse, and there’s “a lot of discussion” about those issues in the writers’ room. “It’s been one of the great privileges and great challenges for me personally to learn more about other points of view on the justice system that are informed by people’s lived experience being a person of color,” he said.
The premise behind “All Rise” isn’t so much that Lola is African American, it’s that she’s a new kind of judge — or, at least, a judge with an attitude new to the L.A. courthouse.
“Lola Carmichael is a woman that we have not seen on TV in this kind of role,” Missick said. “A woman who was vulnerable and flawed and still dealing with emotions, but also extremely capable and smart and has a very strong sense of who she is and what she wants to see happen.”
“Lola sees the person, not the crime,” Spottiswood said. “And even if somebody is found guilty or there’s a hung jury, we want the clients in our show to feel like they’ve been seen and they’ve been heard. Some people feel that the actual justice system doesn’t take the time to do that. And I think that that’s probably at the heart of what’s aspirational about the show.”
“All Rise” is, of course, a network drama, not a documentary. And, no, it’s not altogether true to the legal profession, largely because — as is the case with every legal drama ever made — it has to compress time.
“Everybody who watches understands that it’s a TV show. And so there are going to be liberties taken,” Spottiswood said. And there has been “some eye rolling” among judges and lawyers who’ve seen episodes.
But it’s not like they’re altogether making this stuff up. Former Los Angeles County District Attorney Gil Garcetti (the father of current L.A. mayor Eric Garcetti) is a consultant on “All Rise.” So are a current deputy district attorney and a current public defender, who “vet virtually every draft” of scripts, Spottiswood said. “So that helps us know when we’re breaking the rules or playing a little bit fast and loose with reality.”
And that happens “all the time,” he added with a laugh. “We’ll say, ’Oh, we did some research. We saw this case in Maryland.’ And they’re going, ‘Yeah, not in California.’ It’s a constant negotiation about what we can get away with.”
The consultants often point them to real cases that relate to planned plot developments. “They’re really helpful when we run into a wall,” Spottiswood said, “even if they put that wall up.”
But, he said, most of the feedback he’s gotten from lawyers and judges has been positive.
“I think they really appreciate the fact that there’s no antagonist in the show,” Spottiswood said. “The system is the antagonist — the pressures the system puts on lawyers on both sides. Puts on the judges. How their hands get tied. That’s what everybody’s working against rather than each other.
“We try to really capture a feeling that everybody is trying to do their best. And even though it’s an adversarial system, we try to construct stories where one can see the multiple points of view.”
“All Rise” deals with serious issues — including police misconduct, attorney misconduct, sanctuary cities, racism, gender identity, political extremism, sexism, domestic violence, defendants’ rights and murder. But there are also lighter courtroom moments, like the case of a serial dine-and-dasher and the gamer who accused a friend of “murdering” her avatar.
The characters have often-complicated personal lives, but they’re the kind of people you want to have as friends.
“There’s been a lot of thought and intuition put into these characters and into — how can we engender the best of these people, so that the audience, when they see it, wants to hang out with them?” Spottiswood said.
“You can root for them. And then there’s some episodes where they disappoint you, but they don’t disappoint so much that they alienate you entirely,” he added. “It’s just like any friend or family member.”
And, just like Americans all across the country are doing with their friends and family members, viewers can connect with these characters via the social media-produced episode on Monday.