First Monday Is No West Wing
by Taunya Lovell Banks
Does the success of the television
series West Wing, or the Supreme Court's decision in Bush
v. Gore, explain CBS's new series First Monday? Perhaps,
the Court's highly publicized, but arguably inappropriate and
(some argue) unconstitutional inter-meddling with the 2000 presidential
election explains why media moguls at CBS believe that a television
series about the U.S. Supreme Court is a marketable mid-season
At this point a disclaimer
is warranted. I have never been a clerk for the United States
Supreme Court, so I do not have any insider information about
the workings of the Court. I know several former clerks, but
after reading preliminary reviews of the show, all consciously
avoided viewing First Monday. They even declined my offer
to loan them my tape of the show.
A dramatic program about the
Supreme Court is an interesting concept, a good vehicle for airing
controversial issues facing the Court. But CBS's offering lacks
the gravitas of a program like West Wing, which airs similar
issues while consistently presenting the Office of the President
with respectful decorum, even when President Bartlet (Martin
Sheen) comes across as a bit silly. Discounting several well-publicized
inaccuracies about Court practice and procedure (appellate judges
do not question litigants or witnesses; litigants do not sit
at the counsel table during oral arguments; the justices do not
gather in a circle before oral argument like some football or
basketball team) as dramatic license, First Monday fails
miserably to capture the solemnity of the United States Supreme
First Monday starts off a bit like the 1981 film,
First Monday in October, only the new justice is Joseph
Novelli (Joe Mantegna), not a woman, Justice Ruth Hagadorn Loomis
(Jill Clayburgh). All similarities end, however, when Justice
Novelli (characterized as a moderate liberal, but perhaps more
of a libertarian version of Justice Scalia) comes to his chamber
in bedroom slippers. It is a bit crude in parts. Even non-lawyers
must have cringed when Justice Esther Weisenberg (the Justice
Ginsburg character?) confides to Novelli that she "wet her
panties" when she sat in on her first oral argument!
It may be unfair to try to
match First Monday's justices with contemporary Supreme Court
justices. The show's creator and executive producer, Donald Bellisario,
concedes that he went out of the way to make Justice Jerome Morris
(James McEachin), "the African American" justice, not
sound philosophically like Clarence Thomas. This was probably
both a commercial and political decision. Imagine the reaction
of the NAACP to a Clarence Thomas character on prime time television!
Nevertheless, there are some reference to activities, like the
Chief Justice Brankin's penchant for football, that remind us
of former justices.
Only one of the two cases that
form the first show's focal point raises a constitutional issue.
The writers, obviously, were aware of the Court's split decision
in a 1989 case, Stanford v. Kentucky. The Stanford case held
that executing juveniles does not constitute cruel and unusual
punishment, so the writers frame the death penalty issue as an
underlying issue. The actual claim is that the execution of a
juvenile death row prisoner after his successful brush with a
lightning bolt violates the Eighth Amendment.
There were a few glimmers of
good writing, like the nice symmetry between the opening and
closing scenes. In the opening scene lightning (natural electricity)
strikes, but does not kill the prisoner and causes the telephones
to fail. Near the end of the show the prisoner is executed by
man-made electricity because lightning causes the telephones
to fail, preventing Novelli's clerk from notifying the prison
that the Justice has issued a stay of execution. But these little
gems are few and far between.
The second case involves a
transgendered immigrant seeks asylum claim. Given Congress' plenary
power over immigration, the issue in this case is simply a matter
of statutory interpretation. INS has granted asylum to immigrants
who claim prosecution in their home countries because of their
homosexuality. Unfortunately, the second issue is played for
laughs when the Court's questioning of the petitioner (something
that never happens in real life) discloses that the petitioner
is really a transvestite!
At times the first episode
of First Monday seems like a semi-serious version of Fox's
low-brow but highly successful comedy series Ally McBeal.
Even Novelli's conservative law clerk Miguel's social encounter
with a transgendered attorney sounds suspiciously like a similar
Ally McBeal plot involving one of the firm's partners.
Often First Monday seems not to know whether to take itself
seriously. Good creative writers would go a long way to improving
Another troubling aspects of
the show was a currently fashionable pseudo-reality cameo scene.
Blurring the line between fiction and reality, like the Washington
party scene in the film Traffic, real-life lawyer, Barry
Scheck, and conservative radio talk show host, Dennis Prager,
argue about the merits of the death penalty case on Curve Ball,
a thinly disguised version of the CNN program Hard Ball.
Pseudo-reality scenes, like those in First Monday and
Traffic, uncritically combine politicalized information
bites with entertainment for commercial ends.
Granted, often pseudo-reality
scenes are entertaining, but they may not be appropriate in a
drama dealing with a prestigious and highly valued governmental
institution like the Court, especially at a time when that institution
is still struggling to overcome public perceptions about its
political partisanship. A good show about the Supreme Court would
be helpful in conveying the complexities of the Court and explaining
the importance of the Court as an institution.
Sadly, First Monday
is no West Wing. It is more like the short-lived Comedy
Channel's comedy about the president, That's My Bush!.
Hopefully, the consistently bad reviews given the first show
will cause CBS to either rework First Monday, or pull
the show. If subsequent shows of First Monday are as bad
as the first, I may reprogram my Tivo!
Posted January 22, 2002