Queens Supreme Confusion
by Libby A. White
After viewing the first two episodes of Queens Supreme,
CBS' mid-season submission to the Friday night lineup (10:00
p.m.), I'm still wondering why the powers-that-be at CBS thought
it was a brilliant idea to begin the season with the second episode
and follow it up with the first. Perhaps they thought that Kristen
Johnston's (Third Rock from the Sun) guest appearance
as a furious, trying-to-be-ex-wife of Judge Jack Moran (played
by Oliver Platt) in the opening scene was the attention grabber
to set the season. Or perhaps they decided that being mysterious
about who is who and what's it all about would get viewers to
tune in at least one more time.
whatever reason, I had the following questions after the "first"
episode: 1) who is a judge and who is a law clerk ; 2) why do
people seem to hate (a new judge?) Kim Vicidomini (played by
Anabella Sciorra); and 3) what is wrong with Judge Moran? After
the second episode, the answers are clearer (more on that later).
However, I'm still wondering why Judge Moran and Judge Vicidomini
carry guns, why they seem to have a hard time keeping them out
of the hands of crazed people (more on that later), and if someone
will be shooting a gun into a ceiling or window every episode.
Queens Supreme has been touted as a "seriocomedy,"
that is, a comedy with serious overtones. The setting is the
Queens County Courthouse in New York City, staffed by four Supreme
Court Justices (that's what the lower court judges are called
there), two law clerks, and some security personnel who tend
to be rather free with their guns. Because Queens is the most
ethnically diverse community in the United States (according
to the producers), there is an inexhaustible supply of characters
and nationalities that could pass through the Queens courtrooms.
In addition to Judges Moran and Vicidomini, there is the senior
judge, Thomas O'Neill (Robert Loggia, reprising his usual role
of wise, reasonable, and sympathetic paternal figure) and Judge
Rose Barena (L. Scott Caldwell). The law clarks are Mike Powell
(James Madio, known best from "Band of Brothers") and
Marcy Harriel (Carmen Hui).
In the "first" episode,
after following Judge Moran's wife marching through the courthouse
as she tries to find him to sign the divorce papers, we meet
Jack Moran. Oliver Platt, a distant relative of Orson Welles
(there is a resemblance), plays the central character as a cynical,
lovable judge, trying to do good, but going, and acting, a little
nuts along the way. He escapes his wife by holing up in his courtroom,
attempting to force a hopelessly deadlocked jury to come to decision
in a case in which a smoker died of a heart attack, presumably
caused by the stress of trying to stop smoking.
The jury is deadlocked because
one of the six jurors, who is a heavy smoker himself, thinks
the "Butt Breakers" clinic negligently caused the heart
attack. Because the jury has been deliberating for three days,
the juror holdout is suffering from severe nicotine deprivation.
Judge Moran's order to the jury to come to a decision is the
catalyst for the smoker to disrupt the courtroom, steal the bailiff's
gun, and hold the jury, Judge, bailiff, and law clerk Mike as
hostages while he blissfully smokes away in the courtroom ("don't
mess with a man and his cigarette"). When tempers get a
little hot with the hostages, the juror shoots out a window.
At that point, Judge Moran decides to give his gun to the juror
as a measure of trust (now that's reality) and then argues the
juror's "case" to the jury to show him that he will
have a chance at redemption if he lets them go. His argument
that sometimes perfectly normal people just "make a mistake"
works, and the juror gives up the gun and his hostages. One of
the jurors turns to Judge Moran and remarks, "You're a better
lawyer than you were a judge."
The "second" episode
(directed by Tim Robbins) introduces the courtroom in Queens,
the main characters, and their relationships. We learn that Judge
Vicidomini is a novice political appointee, with an in at City
Hall. Judge Bornea is the most critical of her and her lack of
experience, suggesting that she "slept" her way to
the job. We also find out that City Hall, namely the Mayor, is
very unhappy with Judge Moran and wants him off the bench because
he has called the Mayor a "fascist," and because he
is too easy on criminal defendants and doesn't following sentencing
guidelines. The Bureau of Court Administration decides to suspend
Moran for these reasons and for his unorthodox behavior, which
includes: 1) singing "Trouble, Right in River City,"
from The Music Man, from the bench to illustrate that
just because an elderly woman exercises her First Amendment right
to speak (or sing), even if only to herself, does not mean she
is incompetent to run her business; and 2) appropriating an amputated
penis from a medical malpractice case so he can take a picture
of it with him and his law books.
Judge Vicidomini also has an
interesting time on her first day as a judge when an outraged
father of a rape victim steals her gun and threatens to kill
the rapists. Judge Moran intervenes and shoots his gun into the
ceiling to scare the father into giving up. He does. Judge Vicidomini
also manages to settle the penis case, and then uses her connections
as a "Republican Italian" to convince the Mayor to
reinstate Moran as a judge.
Queens Supreme was conceived by the twin lawyer sons
of Queens County Supreme Court Justice Charles J. Thomas, Peter
and Daniel Thomas. While they propose to use real "war stories"
from their and others' experiences in the courtroom, they admit
to some artistic license, including the universal use of the
gavel (not used much in real life). So far, it appears perfectly
acceptable for judges to be as fully involved, if not more so,
than the lawyers in the presentation of evidence, questioning
of witnesses, and settling of cases. This makes sense for a show
that is focused on trial court judges. Otherwise the reality
of motion practice, preliminary hearings, deadly dull direct
and cross examinations, and judges who should act more as courtroom
referees than as players would not be too entertaining for the
average TV audience.
The action is fast, with quick
cuts to two or three-person conversations that are intense, but
often interlaced with wit and caustic humor, mostly provided
by Jack Moran. Oliver Platt has excellent timing and is already
well within his character's skin. He introduces just enough self-deprecation
and self-criticism to avoid being either too preachy or too irritating
in his humor. The remaining characters need more flesh and of
course, that will come with time, but the most interesting one
so far is the law clerk Mike who adds a certain zing to every
scene, perhaps because James Madio is so charismatic. There is
actually little time in the courtroom, which is a shame, since
courtroom scenes are great for showcasing oratory and analytical
skills, not to mention lessons in group dynamics. For a show
that is set in a courthouse, with the main characters as judges,
what they actually do for their living is not obvious.
The question is, will it last?
A well-known and respected cast, top producers (including Aaron
Spelling and Julia Roberts), and A List directors are
great ingredients for a successful run. But with any successful
show, the writers make all the difference. I'm already concerned
that the characters and stories will be one-dimensional, repetitive
and therefore, boring. The first two episodes had many of the
same ingredients: Judge Moran acting crazy, but then making sense;
Judge Vicidomini seemingly unsure, but then succeeding like a
veteran; normal people pulling guns on others because of stress
in the courtroom (and guns going off), and Judge Moran saving
the day; Judge Barnea criticizing Judge Vicidomini; Judge O'Neill
acting as the voice of reason; judges listening to their juries
through a bathroom vent; and finally, lawyers looking, and acting,
like idiots in the courtroom. It will be interesting to see if
the writers can go beyond these beginning themes and give "Queens
Supreme" some depth and breadth. If not, the initial challenge
of figuring out the first episode may, in hindsight, have been
the most entertaining part of the show.
Posted February 6, 2003