Thursday, September 22, 2011

Deputy D.A. Sampson: The Series' Stereotypical Prosecutor

He had instead conversed with a young deputy D.A.—Sampson, a blustering upstart. Sampson was about as different in personality from Mr. Burger as one could get. Nevertheless, he had a great deal of respect and admiration for the deceased prosecutor and was reeling over his murder. He had, in outrage, vowed to bring the killer to justice.

That was, at least, one thing upon which Tragg could agree with him.
—from The Persecuted Prosecutor, chapter four

In the books, Hamilton Burger is largely a stereotypical prosecutor: blustering, angry, and with a constant chip on his shoulder towards the defense attorney. In the TV series, this is thankfully not the case. While he is, of course, frustrated by many of Perry’s actions, he is able to look beyond that, respect Perry’s skills, and even cultivate a friendship with his in-court rival.

During William Talman’s suspension in the latter half of season 3 and throughout much of season 4, we were introduced to a steady stream of deputy district attorneys for Perry to match wits with. Most of them are unmemorable. They come, recite lines written for Hamilton Burger, and are defeated. The added spark between the characters is absent. There is no strong connection between Perry and any of them, as there is between him and Mr. Burger.

Most of them appear for one episode each and then vanish. At least two are around for repeat performances: Chamberlain (who receives quite a large share of the spotlight in one of his episodes, The Wintry Wife, and makes me long all the more for it to have been Mr. Burger in that episode) and Sampson. Chamberlain is in four episodes, while Sampson claims three.

Chamberlain has a bit more personality than most of the deputies, although offhand I don’t have a great deal to say about him. In The Wintry Wife more than any of his other ventures, it’s obvious that his lines and part were written for Mr. Burger. He even makes one of those wild accusations during court that the writers were so fond of falling back on. Everything is so much the same, and yet it isn’t at all, because it’s Chamberlain instead of Mr. Burger. And it really could have been any of the deputies. They are almost all so alike, even Chamberlain, that recalling which specific one is in a particular episode is difficult.

Sampson, on the other hand, is someone who just can’t be forgotten about. He is the most irritating of the deputy D.A.s, but he is also the most interesting and the most memorable.

Who knows why Sampson was written as he was. Maybe the writers were deliberately trying something new. Maybe they wanted to see how the viewers would accept a stereotypical prosecutor.

That is exactly what Sampson is. He blusters, he yells, and he badgers the witnesses. During his first episode I wanted to shake my fist at the screen and demand to have our Mr. Burger back. Mr. Burger may get frustrated at Perry, but he is a kind and compassionate person and tries to be polite with the witnesses.

Case in point number one: In The Loquacious Liar, Sampson’s approach to a hostile witness who refuses to simply answer Yes or No to questions is to continually interrupt, raising his voice louder and louder each time as he demands for the witness to say Yes or No.

Mr. Burger’s approach to the exact same problem, shown in multiple episodes, is to keep his voice normal and remain polite as he tries to get the witness to cooperate. He has to keep interrupting too, but it’s his attitude as he does it that’s key.

Case in point number two: Sampson continually badgers the poor, already shaken teenage witness in The Red Riding Boots, demanding answers of her until she’s reduced to tears. He sees no distinction between her and any other, older witness.

Mr. Burger’s approach to young and/or distraught witnesses, as shown in The Vagabond Vixen and other episodes, is to be gentle and thoughtful. He speaks kindly to the teenage vixen, not pressing her harshly as he has for some older, witnesses. For him, there is a difference. “Remember, Mr. Mason,” he implores before cross-examination, “she’s scarcely more than a child.”

It’s difficult to know what to say about Sampson’s personality aside from his appalling behavior in court. I tend to think of him, as evidenced by the fanfiction snippet at the beginning of this post, as being devoted to justice and perhaps idolizing the district attorney. I don’t know where I gleaned the latter concept, as it’s equally or more possible that he feels Mr. Burger is too kind and that one needs to be more aggressive to get the job done. Perhaps by having him look up to Mr. Burger instead, I’m trying to find some redeeming, endearing quality to his in-your-face personality.

In any case, perhaps the writers decided the stereotypical approach just wasn’t working. In his final episode, The Envious Editor, Sampson has toned down considerably. While there is a bit of that belligerent spark left, overall he fades more into the background, as by and large his comrades tend to do.

Nevertheless, his normally sharp, blustery behavior ensures that Sampson will always stand out among the deputies. And while I find him more interesting than the rest, I am relieved that he was only around for three episodes—and that Mr. Burger is not like him.

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