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Fall '99: "Judging Amy"

It seems almost unseemly to reach into the bat rack, pull out the big lumber and start hammering away at something as unassuming and ultimately inoffensive as Judging Amy. The show, while not making anyone forget the parade of legal dramas that came before it, at least gives the impression that people are trying to string together 60 minutes of entertaining programming. And for stretches -- five minutes here, another 10 there -- they even manage to pull it off.

So why loose any venom on Judging Amy? It's like driving down to the nearby elementary school at recess to taunt the math whizzes and the fat kids and the D&D crowd over getting picked last for kickball. Yeah, they can't run the bases too good and their kicking form is just atrocious and, geez, doesn't that one kid just throw like a sissy -- but what are you going to do? Their strengths lie in different areas, that's all. That doesn't make them bad human beings. Just bad kickball players.

Same thing with Judging Amy. The show doesn't break any ground that L.A. Law, The Defenders, even Judge Judy haven't tread into dust a thousand times already. The emotional tenor of the legal cases that carry most of the narrative load run the gamut from maudlin to preachy and back to maudlin again by way of manipulative. And, judging by the first few episodes, things tend to wrap up all too neatly by the time the closing credits have to roll.

Of course, that's sort of the point, isn't it? The folks watching CBS on Tuesdays at 10 p.m. aren't really in the mood for Henrik Ibsen. So long as Amy Brenneman can wrestle with the problems of a world gone mad and be home in time to tuck her daughter in at night before the hour's up... well, to them, that's entertainment.

And you know what? They're not that far from right.

For what it is, for where it airs, for the audience it courts, Judging Amy is not that bad of a show. The stories don't drag, the characters are interesting enough and -- barring the sudden appearance of Dixie Carter as a tough-as-nails, man-hating bailiff -- the show avoids some of the more grating elements that fell CBS' other chick-skewing legal drama, Family Law.

Hell, you even get a couple of first-rate performances for your troubles. As Amy Brenneman's roustabout younger brother, Vincent, Dan Futterman gives an understated but still engaging performance. A directionless soul trying to find his way, Vincent winds up being far more interesting than his Harvard Law-educated, officer of the court sister.

Then there's the great Tyne Daly, who only manages to dominate every scene that she's in. Her portrayal of Amy Gray's flinty, domineering and ultimately compassionate mother would be a delight to watch... if it didn't hit so painfully close to home.

So Dan Futterman's good, Tyne Daly's great. Notice who's missing from that pair?

Yup. Judge Amy her own bad self. And, considering she's the central character on this puppy, that's not so good at all.

Maybe it's the hair. For someone who's balancing a brand new career on the bench with raising a precocious daughter single-handedly, Brenneman's Amy Gray sure seems to have a lot of time to get those tresses looking just right. A minor, almost petty point, sure, but goddammit, the woman is being outacted by her own haircut. Not since the days of Sinead O' Connor has a woman been so upstaged by her own coiffure.

But what really undermines Amy Brenneman's performance -- and ultimately, Judging Amy -- is the dubious decision to portray Judge Amy Gray as a quivering ball of recriminations and self-doubt. It's possible to portray a woman who must balance the demands of family and career and not always balance them well -- Felicity Huffman does it to perfection on Sports Night. What Brenneman does is turn her character into an awkward, lip-biting squish, as convincing an authority figure as Don Knotts on the old Andy Griffith program. I have a hard time believing the judge can decide on what to wear each morning, let alone overrule an objection on the grounds of hearsay.

That's a big problem for Judging Amy, but not the only one. When it comes to the show's portrayal of law, the show's producers tend to lock nuance in a broom closet somewhere in favor of cases that either slap viewers over the head or smack them square in the gut. That's why in episode three, we were treated to a case where the family of a girl murdered by her boyfriend filed a wrongful death suit against his parents. And in an upcoming case, Judge Amy will have to decide if a young boy really has stigmata or whether the wounds were inflicted by his parents.

Great. Another stigmata case in prime time.

That's all well and good for now. It keeps the narrative flowing and the viewers coming back for more. But the makers of Judging Amy will soon find out what schlockmeisters such as Jerry Springer and David E. Kelley have discovered before them: Keep giving the audience over-the-top, sensationalistic storylines, and they'll expect those stories to become ever more over-the-top and sensationalistic. And soon Judge Amy is refereeing property disputes between midget albino cross-dressers.

But, in the greater scheme of things, these are just quibbles. Judging Amy isn't watershed television, but then, it doesn't purport to be. It's an hour-long yeoman's effort. The actors say their lines all right, no boom mics drop into the shot and everyone walks away with their dignity intact. In an era where brilliance is hard to come by, we'll just have to settle for competence.


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