by Chris Corcos
Oh, dear. First of all, why
did this series premiere on a Tuesday and why will it then air
on Fridays? Well, if that were the most important of our questions,
we'd be all right.
let's get the special pleading out of the way. Yes, the first
episode of any series is clogged with characters and situations,
in order to get the viewers acclimated. And maybe Executive Producer
Bellisario is angry about Bush v. Gore and its seemingly politically-influenced
After watching the first few
minutes of First Monday, I had the sinking feeling I often
get when reading student first drafts. I can identify some interesting
ideas in there, but they're camouflaged behind murky thought
patterns, cliched writing, superficial analysis, and a lack of
intellectual direction. Shall we start with the characters? Or
the plot so full of holes you could drive a truck through it?
Or the bad dialogue? All of these tax my linguistic ingenuity.
The characters are straight
from popular culture images of former and current Supreme Court
Justices. Garner's conservative, sports-crazy Chief more interested
in Oklahoma's national rankings than in a death-row inmate brush
with lightning is a mix of Byron "Whizzer" White (for
the sports), and various SCJs, including current CJ William Rehnquist,
for the conservatism (and coldness and insensitivity). Are the
Justices that sports-crazy? According to a friend who clerked
at the Court, some of them are. So that part is accurate. If
the writers had made more of it dramatically, it might even be
important. Estelle Weisenberg is clearly Ruth Ginsberg without
the charm or finesse. Jerome Morris (James McEachin) is Thurgood
Marshall-like and thoroughly admirable. Not much you can do with
that if you're an actor, though. Apparently Clarence Thomas,
who would have been a more interesting template for a justice,
is off-limits for political reasons.
The politics of First Monday
is another problem. This episode is agenda-laden. Dealing with
Novelli's first crisis of conscience, it drags out all the memes
associated with capital punishment, the execution of juveniles,
and the execution of the mentally disabled. These are important
issues. Unfortunately, the writers treat them with dialogue dredged
up from film noir. In the interests of full disclosure, I will
admit that I am a knee-jerk liberal, against the death penalty,
for affirmative action, and pro-choice. But the conservatives
on this show get a bad rap. Their legal positions are misrepresented
to the point that they seem to ignore or wilfully misunderstand
the law. When Novelli and Brankin discuss the advisability of
issuing a stay, Brankin's opposition is political, rather than
legal. He suggests that no possible presentation of evidence
or law could result in a rehearing of the case. Therefore the
stay would be cruel, since it would hold out false hope. Novelli's
response is to ask his law clerks (Elly is the only one who does
any work on the case) to find him "case law" that would
allow him to issue the stay. Elly comments that the request for
a stay is badly drafted. What's the dramatic point? That death
penalty advocates are committed but incompetent?
Meanwhile, Brankin calls the
justices together to discuss granting cert (do they do that sua
sponte?). We hear various comments throughout the episode about
the number of justices it takes to grant cert, deny cert or obtain
a "win": different breakdowns fly through the air with
law clerk assessments about how things "would have turned
out" if Novelli had been on the Court the year before. This
all becomes confusing and even law teachers who watched the episode
were left in doubt about what was actually being said. The over-emphasis
on and confusion over "how many votes" distracts us
from the really interesting question: how do Justices make up
their minds? In addition, what goes on behind the Justices' closed
doors in chambers is shrouded in mystery, since no one else,
not even a law clerk, goes in there. The scene in chambers is
therefore totally misleading. If the scriptwriters are trying
to tell us that what goes on is smoke-filled room politics, they
could not have been more obvious, but we have no way of knowing
whether they are correct. Dramatically, it would have been more
interesting if the discussion were not shown and Novelli had
to explain the results to his neophyte clerks (and us) in guarded,
The political breakdowns are obviously more important than the
legal positions. Of all the impressions First Monday throws
out about the Court, this one is perhaps the most accurate. Politics
does matter. But does it matter to the extent that the writers
suggest? Do they really want to tell the American public that
the Brethren make up their minds about who wins and who loses
the way they make up their minds about what to order for dinner?
If so, they need better plots and better dialogue than this.
I'm very cynical about a lot of our legal system, but even I
think it's a cheap shot.
Elly eventually trots in with
a case; Novelli objects to it by saying it isn't factually consistent
with the case at bar, and also that the petitioner lost. (How
did this woman get a job as a law clerk, anyway?). He chastises
her for letting her political beliefs get in the way of her legal
research. Off she goes to try again, and he continues to think
deep thoughts in chambers. The scene of her doing research in
the law library is quite something. Apparently the only person
who knows where anything is located is the person at the desk
(who we are meant to assume is a librarian). She even knows where
specific volumes of reporters are. And she has a code of ethics.
When Julian (Brankin's law minion) pumps her for information
about Elly's research, she declines to answer. The image of the
librarian is accurate-they really do know a lot of stuff and
they keep their mouths shut. Are we going to see that developed?
It might make an interesting plot line at some point. Eventually
the great breakthrough comes, when at the end of the episode,
her male colleague (Jerry, the liberal, nice one) rereads the
trial transcript and opines that the inmate didn't intend to
kill his victim. Aha! Shouts Elly. New evidence! Novelli can
grant the stay. He does, and she tries to get through to the
warden in the usual cliched last-minute reprieve scene, but just
as it did in the beginning of the episode, lightning strikes
the prison, knocking out communications, and she has to give
up. Moses is executed. She feels really, really bad about that,
The triumph of politics over
law is even uglier in the scenes involving the transsexual Mexican
national who wants political asylum. The petitioner sits with
her attorney at the defense table. While the Court provides tables
for attorneys, petitioners don't routinely sit with their advocates,
and justices don't pepper clients with questions from the bench.
(The closest anyone ever came to addressing the Court without
leave was when Larry Flynt objected to the proceedings during
his attorney's November 8, 1983 oral argument and Chief Justice
Burger ordered him arrested. Keeton v. Hustler, 104 S. Ct. 1473
(1984)). The questions directed at the appellant and her attorney
from the conservative Justices are mean-spirited and rude. Chief
Justice Rankin tells the petitioner if he'd just put on a pair
of pants his "problem would be solved." Justice Hoskins
asks the attorney if the petitioner plans to have "the operation"
to make him female. She says she doesn't know (like Elly, yet
another incompetent female practicing law in the jurisdiction
of PopCultureLand, apparently). The client admits at that point
that he is really a transvestite, destroying his case. To make
matters worse, the attorney accepts a dinner invitation from
Novelli's Hispanic conservative law clerk, Miguel (at least he's
not named "Jesús" or "Juan"), who
tells her that he likes her legs. At dinner she admits that she
never met her client before she took the case yesterday. They
go dancing, and in a plot twist one can see a mile away, she
reveals that she is a transsexual. So much for Miguel's (we are
to assume) misguided admiration of her legs. ("Oh,"
he says, "that's why you wanted to lead.") Miguel is
apparently meant to go against type: he's anti-affirmative action
and pro-death penalty. He's the Clarence Thomas of Hispanic-American
legal circles, reminding viewers that we can't judge a book by
its cover or a lawyer by her figure, or a law clerk by his name.
At the end of the episode Novelli
calls his Chief Justice in the middle of the night to tell him
he plans to issue stays for all eight death row inmates convicted
of crimes committed while they were juveniles. The CJ is unimpressed
with this display of potential moral courage, and so are the
viewers. Moses is still really dead.
And the language! Non-lawyers
will think lawyers are linguistically challenged. When examining
the picture of Novelli on the football team, male law clerk 1
(Jerry the likeable guy) says he didn't realize his new boss
was a jock. "Look beyond the prima facie evidence,"
Elly informs him (Novelli was the water boy). Prima facie evidence?
I know some pretty pretentious Ivy League law grads. Even they
don't talk like that.
The interactions are bizarre.
Newly appointed Justice Novelli's (Joe Mantegna) first meetings
with his fellow justices occur on his first day of service. Likely?
I think not. Nor do they really lobby each other on the way down
the hall to hear oral argument. And does the CJ joyfully shout
"Let's make history" after a football huddle, as they
pile onto the bench, like a high school cheerleader with delusions
of grandeur? And it's pretty implausible that Novelli has never
been to the Court before. After all, he has to move into his
My local newspaper ran a column
about the episode yesterday. The critic objected to the depiction
of only four law clerks, three of them working for Novelli, saying
that viewers might think that's all it takes to run the Court.
Believe me, if that was all I thought viewers would think was
wrong with the Court, I wouldn't worry about it. The erstwhile
quartet didn't bother me; in fact, I found them so annoying that
I don't think I could have taken more than that. "Elly"
does all the work, and all the worrying. One of the males, "Jerry
Klein", is the pragmatic sort, very likely to do well as
an eventual popular and emotionally healthy partner in a major
law firm, probably headed for a judgeship himself one day. Third
up is Miguel, the conservative jackass who gets his comeuppance
at the end of the episode. Finally, there's the Chief Justice's
law clerk, a smarmy bit of work named Julian Lodge, who spies
on the other clerks for his master's benefit.
The one redeeming social value
is the acting. The wonderful Charles Durning, who has bad limericks
to recite, James Garner, Joe Mategna and the much underrated
James McEachin are among the talented bunch trapped in this mess.
The actor playing the condemned man does a fine job, as does
the one playing his prison guard, but again their dialogue is
familiar and thus much less touching than it should be. The young
death row inmate whom lightning strikes twice is named "Moses"-unfortunately
he's not leading us into any promised land that I can discern,
except that of certain knowledge that people in this country
are wrongly executed every year.
First Monday could be so much more than it is-an
exciting examination of ideas and social policy coupled with
the human interaction that we forget makes up a great part of
the workings of the Court. Any reporter volume is full of intriguing
and interesting cases that could form the basis for a fascinating
plot, that with effective writing and plotting would not be beyond
the audience's ability to comprehend.. Memo to Donald Bellisario:
Get in touch with me. I can help you with this.
If I talked in sports cliches,
I'd say First Monday so far has too many men on the field,
and ought to be penalized for late hits. Since I don't, I think
First Monday is full of (I hope) reversible errors. But
so far, I'd deny it cert. Without radical revision, I give this
series a very short Term.
Posted January 18, 2002