QUEENS SUPREME--WHO CARES ABOUT JUDGES?
By Michael Asimow
Let's face it. The life of
judges is really boring. Trial judges just sit up there on the
bench, hammer their gavel, rule on motions, sustain or overrule
evidentiary objections, instruct the jury, and go to lunch. They
are almost completely passive, not active like the lawyers. By
comparison, the life of appellate judges is even more boring.
They spend their day reading briefs, listening to oral argument,
and writing opinions. As a result, a TV series based on the life
of trial or appellate judges is likely to be a real snoozer.
fate of the two Supreme Court series that debuted last year (First
Monday and The Court) was a bad omen. They were killed
after a few episodes. The writers tried to liven them up with
sex among the clerks and bickering among the justices, but it
just didn't work. On the other hand, Judging Amy has been
a modest success. The shows do a decent job of exploring real
issues in juvenile and family law. People seem interested in
the life of judge Amy Gray (and her children, ex-husband, boyfriends
and her gay court clerk). In my opinion, the key to the show's
success is Amy's mother Maxine Gray (played by Tyne Daly). Maxine
is a social worker and each week's show juxtaposes the social
work angle and the legal angle. To me, at least, the social work
segment is more interesting and carries the show. Judging
Amy thus resembles Law & Order which somehow hit
on a winning combination by combining police work and prosecution
work in each episode.
And then there are the daytime
judge shows, led by Judge Judy and her numerous clones.
These shows are a phenomenal ratings success, with Judge Judy
often pulling the highest ratings on daytime TV. The reasons
for this success are somewhat obscure. Evidently the daytime
TV audience enjoys a voyeuristic look into the tacky problems
of the real litigants who duke it out on the show. They seem
to welcome receiving bite-size lessons in legal rules. More important,
the audience seems to get off on the highly injudicious behavior
of the daytime TV judges. Judy Scheindlin berates the litigants
for their stupidity and bad manners. Meanwhile, she unashamedly
articulates her own moral values and those of her audience ("how
come you keep getting pregnant when you can't support the kids
you already have?") But the bottom line is that the audience
seems to like watching these judges at work.
So, there's hope for a new
TV series about the life of trial judges, right? Queens Supreme
is CBS' bet that people care about what judges do. Personally,
I don't think so and predict a quick death for the new show,
but what do I know? Even network executives have a terrible record
in predicting whether particular pop culture products will find
a market--so people like us in the peanut gallery aren't likely
to do any better.
The fundamental problem in
writing a show about trial judges is to avoid dwelling on the
unspeakably tedious work that judges actually do and instead
find some way to inject sex and violence into each episode. The
debut of Queens Supreme did that capably and, I grudgingly
admit, I kind of enjoyed it. The episode focuses on Judge Jack
Moran, played by Oliver Platt. I have always enjoyed Platt's
work and I thought he did a bangup job in the debut episode.
Judge Moran is trying a tort case arising out of a death at a
quit-smoking clinic. The jury is hopelessly hung. The jurors
really hate each other, particularly one particularly obnoxious
juror who is holding out for the plaintiff. He argues that the
cold-turkey therapy at the clinic caused a fatal heart attack.
Needless to say, that juror is himself a heavy smoker who is
having withdrawal symptoms since he can't smoke in the jury room.
Jurors who are voting for the defense seem almost equally obnoxious
including a preachy high school teacher.
While Judge Moran administers
the "Allen charge" (designed to get the jurors to compromise
and come up with a unanimous verdict), the obnoxious juror goes
berserk, grabs the bailiff's gun, and holds the judge, jurors
and court personnel hostage. Although the hostage-taker never
figures out what he is trying to do, the episode generates some
real suspense. Judge Moran is packing his own heat and a lot
of tension arises from whether he's going to go for his gun and
shoot it out with the juror.
A back story during this episode
concerns Judge Moran's pending divorce. The show opens with his
wife trying to get the judge to sign the final divorce papers
which he doesn't want to do. And the episode ends with them going
to dinner. Left open is whether they're going to give their marriage
one more try. So--episode one managed to inject both sex and
violence into the humdrum life of big city trial judges. But,
to be honest, the funny parts weren't really very funny and the
drama parts weren't all that dramatic.
One thing I liked about the
show is that it highlighted some real issues about juries. It
was very good in underlining how wretchedly unpleasant it can
be for jurors to be cooped up in jury rooms wrangling for days
with obnoxious people they can't stand and who seem to be completely
irrational. The episode raises serious questions about whether
our commitment to juries in civil cases makes any sense. Just
about nobody else in the world uses juries for cases of this
kind. Juries are inefficient, expensive, irrational, and vastly
slow up the civil litigation process. They are also a huge intrusion
on the lives of ordinary people. We no longer conscript soldiers
and we don't force you to vote. Why, exactly, are we still forcing
people to serve on civil juries (aside from the fact that civil
juries are protected by the Seventh Amendment)?
So, good luck to Queens
Supreme. I suggest you catch it before it's cancelled.
Posted February 6, 2003