Harvey Birdman, Attorney At Law is one of the original Adult Swim programs, similar in style and concept to the truly classic Spage Ghost Coast to Coast and produced by the same company. But instead of re-purposing old Hanna Barbera cartoons to make a surrealistic talk show, they’re re-purposing old Hanna Barbera cartoons to make a surrealistic legal sitcom of sorts. In this post we’re talking about the first four episodes of the first season, which are available on DVD.
I. Bannon Custody Battle
Race Bannon challenges Dr. Benton Quest for custody of Johnny Quest and Hadji. It’s strongly implied that Bannon and Quest Sr. are in a romantic relationship, and Bannon takes the position that since he’s the one that spends all the time with the kids that he should have primary custody.
Of course, custody disputes don’t really come up when partners are getting along, and while Johnny is Quest Sr.’s biological son, Hadji is adopted at best. So there’s a few legal issues going on here. But testimony is offered by a bunch of characters all of whom testify that it was Bannon, not Quest, who actually raised the kids. This is the kind of thing that would come out in a true custody hearing. Also, we’ve never heard of a situation of a caretaker being hired by a parent and then challenging the parent for custody, so the fact that Bannon and Quest Sr. are impliedly involved is part of what makes this whole thing even thinkable. The legal system hasn’t necessarily figured out how to deal with custody disputes between same-gendered couples, where only one or possibly neither partner is biologically related to the children. Courts do care about biological relations, and will generally honor them unless there’s been a formal adoption. So it almost doesn’t matter how absentminded Quest Sr. is. It’s hard to see how Bannon wins this ever.
But it turns out that “Bannon” is actually a robot. The real Bannon is on vacation. So, problem solved?
II. Very Personal Injury
Apache Chief is a former Super Friend whose power is to grow larger and return to normal size at will. Rest assured, the writers waste no opportunity to make erection jokes. But the plot here is that he casually saves the world, then goes inside for coffee where he spills the coffee on himself. He burns himself and loses the ability to grow. Queue the impotence jokes.
If you take the superpowers out of it, the way this trial goes down isn’t as outlandish as it seems, allowing for the normal departures from civil procedure that all law shows involve. Plaintiff’s counsel for personal injury lawsuits frequently go out of their way to paint their clients as veritable Mother Teresas. Some even go so far as to make multimedia presentations about their clients for mediation and even possibly for trial. Pictures of former activities, demonstrations of current disabilities, and tons of crap about how wonderful a person the plaintiff is. Defense counsel don’t pay any attention to this, and most of the time juries don’t either. Sometimes you’ll get a truly unusual case, but most plaintiffs are just regular schmoes like you and me. But the dog and pony show is pretty much a given.
Also, discussions about a plaintiff’s emotional state and alleged embarrassment are pretty common. Emotional injury usually considered to be an independent tort, not an element of damages, but whether or not it’s specifically plead, juries want to know that. So those discussions are also on point.
But the episode does get one thing wrong: the fact that Apache Chief ultimately regains his powers does not mean that his case gets dismissed. The claim may be worth considerably less now, but temporary injury is still injury.
III. Shaggy Busted
On the way to the old cotton mill, Shaggy and Scooby are busted when a cop notices the Mystery Machine “driving erratically.” When the cop approaches, Shaggy and Scooby are laughing uncontrollably and talking about a green monster at the old mill. The van is also not in great shape, so there’s quite a bit of smoke in the air. The cop naturally assumes that the two are high as a kite and asks them to get out of the van. Shaggy punches it, but the two are ultimately arrested.
As Wilma puts it, it isn’t that Shaggy and Scooby are doing drugs. They’re just stupid and always hungry. But the way the prosecutor puts on the case is highly objectionable. Videos of a criminal defendant taken at times other than the time period during which the charged offenses were allegedly committed and edited in such a way as to suggest that the defendant is a stoner would never be admissible in court. Also, the prosecution always goes first, so why Harvey leads off is beyond us. Lastly, even if the cops believed that Shaggy and Scooby were telling the truth about the green monster, driving erratically is still a chargeable offense, albeit probably only a misdemeanor or violation.
IV. Death by Chocolate
Turns out Boo Boo Bear is actually the Unabooboo. Raging against the influence of corporations on modern society, he has retired to his cave and written a rambling, paranoid manifesto. And sent booby-trapped cookie baskets to CEOs all over the country. But Yogi gets suspicious and drops a dime on him, and the cops take ’em down.
The plot is taken loosely from the 1985 film Jagged Edge, and most of what goes on is devoted more to the surreality of the whole thing than anything else. But the episode suggests that the cops got a confession out of Boo Boo by beating it out of him, complete with live, non-animated footage of a few guys beating up a guy in a bear costume. This is clearly a violation of Boo Boo’s Fifth Amendment rights. As such the confession would never have made it into evidence. If the cops have procured evidence improperly, defense counsel will file a motion in limine on the subject to keep the jury from hearing it at all.
For a surrealistic comedy show, Harvey Birdman has a surprising number of legal concepts worth talking about. We’re likely to return to this at some point.