With their high stakes and explorations of right and wrong, good and evil, and the gray areas in between, it’s no wonder legal dramas have been television staples since practically the beginning of the medium, or that some remain among the longest-running television shows of all time.
Later this month, CBS will make its latest contribution to the genre with So Help Me Todd (Sept. 29). Oscar winner Marcia Gay Harden stars as a type-A attorney who hires her son Todd, a down-on-his-luck private investigator, to work at her firm in an attempt to get his life back on track. In honor of the show’s upcoming premiere, we rounded up some of the best legal dramas to grace the silver screen. See if you don’t get hooked on one, two, or maybe all of them.
Better Call Saul (2015-2022)
Critics and many viewers agree that this Breaking Bad spin-off/sequel/prequel eclipsed the series that originated its complicated main character, Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk). Saul follows Jimmy’s evolution from reformed Chicago con man into “Saul Goodman,” a corrupt Albuquerque criminal defense lawyer who becomes increasingly entangled in the city’s seedy underworld.
Peak legal drama: The legal battle between Jimmy and his lawyer brother, Chuck, comes to a head in “Chicanery” (Season 3, Episode 5), when Chuck and Jimmy face each other in court as Chuck attempts to get Jimmy disbarred.
Watch it: Better Call Saul, on Netflix
The Good Wife (2009-2016)
This CBS series follows Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies), who returns to work as a defense attorney after a sex and political corruption scandal sends her husband, a state’s attorney, to prison. Its serialized storytelling, its sharp handling of social media and tech in politics and the law, and Margulies’ powerful acting made the series a standout (and earned her two Primetime Emmy Awards).
Peak legal drama: “Hail Mary” (Season 6, Episode 11) is high on action and suspense, as Alicia’s colleagues work to exonerate one of their own, while Alicia faces a pivotal moment in her own burgeoning political career.
Watch it: The Good Wife, on Paramount+
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How to Get Away With Murder (2014-2020)
This twisty, Shonda Rhimes-produced show starts with high-powered law professor Annalise Keating (Viola Davis) and five of her students becoming involved in a complicated murder case, and follows them as they deal with its fallout. Davis’ powerful performance made her the first Black woman to take home the Emmy for outstanding lead actress in a drama series.
Peak legal drama: In “Lahey v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania” (Season 4, Episode 13), the show has a crossover with Rhimes’ hit political drama, Scandal, bringing Davis and Kerry Washington together onscreen as they collaborate on a class action lawsuit about the mass incarceration of Black Americans. Cicely Tyson rounds out the powerhouse acting crew as Keating’s mother.
Watch it: How to Get Away With Murder, on Netflix
Don’t miss this: Shonda Rhimes’ Best TV Shows of All Time (So Far!)
Billy McBride (Billy Bob Thornton) is a formerly powerful partner turned hard-drinking ambulance chaser in this Prime Video series. When he begins pursuing a wrongful death lawsuit against the client of the big law firm he helped found, he ends up uncovering a dangerous conspiracy and finds a new purpose in bringing down the big guy.
Peak legal drama: Season 3 tackles the real-world challenges of California’s water shortages, as Billy brings a class action suit against wealthy farmers trying to steal water in the drought-stricken Central Valley.
Watch it: Goliath, on Prime Video
Boston Legal (2004-2008)
This spin-off of The Practice follows one of its former characters, Alan Shore (James Spader), and his colleagues at a high-end litigation firm. Much of the show’s humor and heart derives from the friendship between the crafty, middle-aged Shore and his older, reputation-obsessed colleague Denny Crane (William Shatner).
Peak legal drama: In “The Court Supreme” (Season 4, Episode 17), Shore gets the opportunity of a lifetime when he’s asked to appeal to the Supreme Court on behalf of a mentally impaired man facing the death sentence.
Perry Mason (1957-1966)
Despite being one of the first weekly hour-long series on television, this classic courtroom procedural still holds up today. The show focuses on L.A. criminal defense lawyer Perry Mason (Raymond Burr) as he defends the innocence of his wrongly charged clients.
Peak legal drama: In “The Case of the Lucky Loser” (Season 2, Episode 2), Mason is hired to help a wealthy heir charged with a hit-and-run death. When the client is charged twice for the same crime, Mason fights even harder to dig up evidence and, in a classic “Perry Mason moment,” ends up making a shocking revelation in court.
Watch it: Perry Mason, on Paramount+
Law & Order (1999-present)
The flagship show of Dick Wolf’s Law & Order empire is a keystone in the legal drama canon. Its predictable two-act approach, ripped-from-the-headlines cases, dry humor and top-tier acting have made this a long-standing viewer favorite.
Peak legal drama: The three-episode arc of “D-Girl,” “Turnaround” and “Showtime” (Season 7, Episodes 15, 16, 17) brings the New York detectives out to L.A. after the murder of a Hollywood director’s wife, and culminates with an especially high-pressure, high-profile trial.
Watch it: Law & Order, on Peacock
Lauren Vespoli is a Brooklyn-based freelance culture writer and audio producer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, New York Magazine and Vox.