Judging Judging Amy
By Chris Jackson
I should be on my way to Vegas.
A prediction I ventured back in May has come true (see Picturing
Justice article, "From
Baltimore to Providence: Its Farther Than You
At that time, NBC had cancelled
the steely crime drama Homicide: Life on the Streets,
and sentimental newcomer Providence was safely ensconced
among the top twenty shows. My guess was that televisions fall lineup
would include a spate of shows featuring thirty-ish urban professionals
returning home for a new start. Cincinnati or Phoenix
might be likely titles. I overlooked Hartford, location
and secret title of CBSs Judging Amy. Similar
to Providence, this show has snappier writing and substitutes
law for medicine as the main characters career. Still,
its a softy.
The ten-year marriage of corporate
lawyer Amy Gray (Amy Brenneman) is over. Nominated for a judgeship
in Hartford Countys Juvenile Court, Amy and her young daughter
(Karle Warren) flee New York City for the relative quiet of Connecticut.
The two move in with Amys mother, Maxine (the inimitable
Tyne Daly), a semi-retired social worker. Other family members
include older brother Peter, a plodding insurance executive,
Jillian, his dissatisfied wife upset because she cant conceive,
and Vincent (Dan Futterman), a struggling short story writer
running a dog washing business. Vincents literary style
is, according to his agent, "Anne Tyler with testicles."
What can legal practitioners
learn from this series? So far the dramas focus on matters
of law has been pretty mushy. For Amy, presiding in family court
is like returning to kindergarten. In early episodes, Amy learns
when to call a recess and where to sit for lunch (with Maxine,
of course, who smiles and waves at everyone in the cafeteria).
Its hard to believe that
Judge Gray is a Harvard Law grad with corporate law experience.
After a family workers recommendation to the court, Amy
asks, "What does that mean?" The woman responds,
"What part?" Amy says, "All of it."
Eventually, Judge Gray suggests that a childs grandmother
may be a more suitable caretaker than a foster family. Maxine
would beam with pride.
Other cases testing Amys
ethical and legislative mettle concern a possible conflict of
interest, a defendant claiming multiple personality disorder,
and a violent juvenile offender. One of her decisions is appealed.
Judge Gray has yet to cite any precedents or display legal knowledge.
The four or five shows Ive seen avoid actual rulings and
are long on continuances.
credits end with a clip of Amy scampering down a hall, judicial
robe floating behind her. The shot is a mirror image from that
saga of teen angst, My So-Called Life. Amys professional
world of the courthouse is only high school, and all these new
people are just cliques in the cafeteria. For courtroom role
models, better watch The Practice or Sam Waterston and
Angie Harmon in Law and Order.
Spiritual guidance, however,
is the series strong suit. This is a show in search of
wisdom rather than justice. The biggest burden on Amys
shoulders seems to be balancing professional duties with personal
responsibilities. Ironically, Amy becomes a judge in family court
just as her own marriage is crumbling. Prior to being sworn in,
Amy faces her precocious daughter, Lauren.
Amy: This judge thing is
really cool but the most important job Ill ever have is
being your mom. [pause for effect] How was that?
Lauren: Pretty good. Now,
lets get sworn in.
Living with Mom and other family
members represents another challenge for Judge Gray. Like "Providence,"
the show brims with babies and dogs. In some of the at-home scenes,
the sap flows freely.
Bing bong. "Now, who
comes to visit at dinner time?" Maxine asks, but we
already know. Yes, its the angry mother who abandons her
adorable baby on Maxines doorstep. This happens just in
time to give the childless Jillian a taste of child-rearing.
Who wouldnt love this big old house filled with wacky relatives?
Even the dorky older brother shows his warm side when he and
Vincent go out for some brewskys.
Despite cornball plots and
soft-focus shots of family portraits, the dialogue at home includes
some spice. After Amy and Maxine fight, Vincent tells Amy to
Vincent: Cmon. Throw
Mom a bone.
Amy: She doesnt want
a bone; she wants the whole cow.
In another scene, Maxines
ham-handedness leaves only her and Vincent at the dinner table.
Vincent: You sure know
how to clear a room.
Maxine: It hasnt
worked on you yet.
Unlike the guardian angel mother
in Providence, Amys sage matriarch is all too
alive. Her home is a sprinkler system of wisdom. Even the family
dogs name is Socrates. When Jillian leaves Peter and moves
in with Maxine, Mom spins out a little homily. "Jillian,
did you let Socrates out by himself? You should go with him.
Then he will do what he needs to do." Translation:
Go back to Peter.
Maxines goal is to show
her offspring how to be adults. Her advice to Amy about being
a judge? "Pee before you take the bench, and make sure
theres no food in your teeth. Trust your instincts."
You never heard such tasty tidbits in law school. Armed with
these truths, who needs LSATs and mock trials?
My crystal ball is ready with
its next prediction: a three-five year run for Judging Amy,
despite a time slot opposite ABCs NYPD Blue starting
in January. Sharp writing and fine acting make the show appealing.
There are already indications that Amy on the bench is wising
up, and Maxine will display more vulnerability. The ethos that
family must be preserved is a sea change from other crime and
cop dramas. "Amy" is comfort food for tired, hungry
professionals who feel adrift in the career world. They can watch,
learn a little something about how to survive mistakes, and feel
secure with Maxines wisdom that "There are no
Posted December 19,
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