The four-hour PBS series, "The Supreme Court" (9 tonight and Feb.7, WNED-TV), is of the lawyers, by the lawyers and probably primarily for the lawyers.
Watching it, I felt like I was back in the Constitutional Law class I took at Syracuse University under Professor Michael O. Sawyer.
Since I only remember a few college professors, clearly Sawyer's class was one of my favorites, and I was predisposed to enjoy this series. My enthusiasm was also inspired by a press session in Pasadena, Calif., in which executive producer Jody Sheff and legal experts Jeffrey Rosen, Walter Dellinger III and Joan Biskupic talked about the project.
"The drama and intrigue, the politics and passion, all the way down to the bitter feuds and strategic alliances rival any fiction on television," noted Sheff.
Promises, promises. After watching the four hours, I almost felt like I should be taking notes and be prepared for a test about Marbury v. Madison, Roe v. Wade, Brown v. Board of Education, the Dred Scott case, Bush v. Gore and many others.
"The Supreme Court" isn't exactly the most entertaining program of the year, but it could be one of the most important to those who want to understand how much of the nation's history, criminal justice system, economy and social issues has been influenced by the U.S. Supreme Court. And will be in the future.
"The history of the court is completely interwined with the history of America, and the court changes as America changes," said Biskupic in Pasadena.
The series tries to personalize the justices, a few of whom used the power of persuasion and of wine to bond with their colleagues and attempt to reach an all-important consensus. There also is an occasional surprising bit of gossip that you might expect to hear on "Entertainment Tonight." You expect Billy Bush to show up when we are told that Justice O'Connor and the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist dated when they were young.
But most the series, which is narrated by actor David Strathairn ("Good Night, and Good Luck") is a pretty dry summation of the formation of the court, its politics, its expansion of power and its controversial decisions told by law professors and former law clerks to the justices.
The series is augmented with some brief interviews with the thoughtful new Chief Justice with Buffalo ties, John G. Roberts Jr., and former Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor; photographs we've come to expect in PBS projects (especially from Ken Burns); and file footage of more recent events covered by American television.
Some of the legal scholars -- Lucas A. Powe of the University of Texas Law School and SMU professor Joseph Kobylka are my favorites -- stand out due to a combination of expertise and enthusiasm.
If you're a lover of all the "Law & Order" shows and other crime series on television, you might consider watching to understand what "Miranda" means and its impact on the criminal system. You'll also discover why it is almost impossible to predict how nominees will behave before they join the Court.
"The series does explore indirectly . . . why justices change," said Rosen in Pasadena. "Part of it is their interaction with their colleagues."
Tonight's first two hours, "One Nation Under Law" and "A New Kind of Justice," address the early development of the court and how the first chief justice, John Marshall, essentially became the inventor of the Court with his skillful decision in the 1803 case, Marbury v. Madison.
Next week's two hours, "A Nation of Liberties" and "The Rehnquist Revolution," may resonate more with viewers because they deal with Civil Rights, abortion and other important continuing gender and religious issues of the 20th and 21st centuries.
The compelling story of Justice Hugo Black, a Southerner and former member of the Ku Klux Klan who became one of the strongest advocates of 20th century civil rights laws, is powerfully told in "A Nation of Liberties."
The final hour, "The Rehnquist Revolution," is overwhelmingly favorable to the conservative justice and critical of his ineffectual predecessor, Warren Burger. It shows that Rehnquist's revolution wasn't the one that conservatives hoped for or expected from a court packed with nominees from Republican presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.
In essence, Justice Rehnquist's revolution was in expanding the prestige of the Court to the point that Americans could respect the body even if they might believe some decisions were influenced as much by politics and public opinion as by law.
"The Supreme Court" isn't revolutionary TV. But for those who want to understand where the Court and the country are today, how we got there and where the nation may be going, it is as close to must-see TV as you can get.
Rating: 3 and a half stars out of 4
"The Supreme Court"
Review: 3 1/2 stars (out of four)
9 p.m. tonight on WNED-TV