Most all fans of television can name at least one performer whose mere presence in a show is reason enough to watch, and I am no different. Tyne Daly is that performer for me. To be honest, someone could film an hour of Tyne Daly cleaning the dirt from under her fingernails and I’d give her an Emmy. So naturally, I was thrilled to see Daly return to series television. The former co-star of Cagney and Lacey and Christy now appears in Judging Amy on CBS. Make no mistake, age has not diminished Daly’s fire.
But Judging Amy is not Daly’s show. It’s Amy Brenneman’s. The former NYPD Blue actress is not only the star of JA, but is also one of the show’s producers and has based the series on the life of her own mother, Juvenile Court Judge Frederica S. Brenneman. Prior to the series’ first episode, Judge Gray appeared to have it all: a nice home, a good career as a corporate lawyer, a beautiful daughter, and a hard-working husband. But things were not all rosy at home, and when Amy and her husband separated, she took her daughter Lauren (Karle Warren) and moved back home to Connecticut to live with her headstrong mother, Maxine (Daly). After being appointed to the bench in the Hartford juvenile courts system, Amy finds her life becoming increasingly complicated, and it is at this point that the series picks up her story. Amy must figure out how to juggle a new job where she is treated like a novice by many of her colleagues, a young daughter striving to understand why mommy and daddy don’t live together anymore, and a no-nonsense mother who is not always thrilled to have house guests. Add to this mix Amy’s unspoken attraction to her court officer, Bruce (Richard T. Jones), and the weekly predicaments of her two brothers, the intellectual Vincent (Dan Futterman) and the uptight Peter (Marcus Giamatti), as well as an ex-husband who just won’t go away, and it comes as no surprise that Amy is often stressed to the breaking point. However, instead of being a woman trapped in a whirlpool of change, Amy is a woman who’s life changes slowly, one crisis at a time. How she balances the various elements in her life forms the foundation of the series.
The plot synopsis above would seem to indicate an abundance of cliches in the show’s structure, and, yes, cliches do flourish here. Young woman gets divorced, so she goes home to Mom’s to live. Young daughter hates Daddy’s new girlfriend. Aging, tenacious mother battles her grown children to be treated as an individual. Brothers represent yin and yang, the free-thinker and the practical family man. The court system is hopelessly back-logged and the court docket is filled with cases that represent moral and social dilemmas, not the usual petty larceny and juvenile delinquent cases on actual court dockets. Nevertheless, the show presents these tired formulas in a manner that makes them engrossing, by showing them through the eyes of the determined Judge Gray. Her reactions to the various situations she must deal with are realistic, not contrived or melodramatic, and this realism makes the viewer realize that we all live with “stock” characters and situations in our lives. We root for Amy Gray to thrive, not only because she is a good and caring woman, but also because we can relate to the internal turmoil of an unprofessional attraction for a co-worker or the grief one feels when a long-term relationship, such as a marriage, has ended. The fact that Amy must deal with so much at one time is a little bit far-fetched, yet we end up feeling just that much more empathy for her.
Still, Amy Gray would be just another primetime “woman with problems” were it not for Brenneman’s skills. Although we can see the stress in her face, Brenneman never takes the character over the edge into hysterics or self-pity. And there is enough joy in Amy’s life to keep us from feeling that the series is relentless or morose. Especially touching is the strong relationships across the three generations of women. Amy’s healthy relationship with her child is evident in her attempts to foster a loving father-daughter bond between young Lauren and the man with whom she is involved in a bitter divorce. Simultaneously, Amy is working to strengthen the bond with her own parent, Maxine, and their relationship gives the show much of its spark and conflict. For instance, one episode, “Gray vs. Gray,” found Amy and Maxine struggling to find time in their hectic schedules to have lunch together. At the same time, the two find themselves on opposite sides of the law, with Judge Gray seeking to interview a dying teenager who is a witness in a case she is hearing, and Maxine, the dying boy’s social worker, seeking to protect the young man from the stress of interrogation at any cost, including defying her daughter’s court orders. The give and take between Brenneman and Daly creates one of the most believable mother-daughter relationships on television in years, and Brenneman rises to the level of the magnificent Daly.
Although Amy has a solid connection with her brother Vincent, I must admit to cringing whenever the dull Peter and his insecure wife Gillian (Jessica Tuck) are worked into the storyline. In addition to the need to add depth to Peter and Gillian, there are other areas of the show that could use fine-tuning. One notable element is the show’s lighting, so dark that it creates a somber tone even when the scene doesn’t call for one. Also in need of illumination is the writing, which seems to have fallen into a repetitive pattern. Every week, Judge Gray must deal with some thought-provoking case while dealing with a crisis in either her life or in the family. While these trials and tribulations give the show much of its spark, the recurring pattern will most likely become tiresome when repeated weekly over an extended run. While Amy’s personal predicaments are usually resolved by hour’s end, some of the court cases are played out in serial fashion, and viewers will need to tune in regularly to see their resolution. I’m still wondering what became of two teen boys sent off for psychiatric evaluation in midseason; perhaps I missed the episode where the case was closed, but that doesn’t make my frustration any less.
Although the show is never poorly written, it never rises to the level of intricacy of television’s best-written dramas. A look at this year’s Emmy Awards could lead to the conclusion that in order to be considered an exceptional drama, a show must be layered with subplots and characters. Up for Outstanding Drama Series were such critics’ favorites as The Practice, a show known for its surprise endings and multiple plot twists; The Sopranos, an in-depth analysis of the psychological conflicts of a mob boss; and the eventual winner, The West Wing, a series dealing with the most hectic of settings, the inner workings of the White House. The praise heaped on these series raises the question, can a show that is less obviously complicated, such as Judging Amy, be recognized as excellent television? Have the critics convinced us that overt complexity equals quality? Issues raised in Judge Gray’s court are explored for their dramatic elements, not for their broader implications. Even in Amy’s personal life, social commentary is to be avoided. Amy’s attraction to Bruce, an African-American, could raise questions regarding the status of interracial relationships in the 21st century, but the show presents the relationship as one between two nice people. In last season’s finale, false charges of impropriety are brought against the judge and her court officer, providing the show with the perfect opportunity to explore the racial aspects of the relationship. However, Bruce’s response to the charges was merely, “You’re white, I’m black. It was bound to happen.” There is no further mention of the subject, as the show switches focus to a hostage crisis at the courthouse. The focal point remains how Amy will deal with the charges (and the hostage crisis), not the possible connotations of the two situations.
The frustration one may feel with the show’s apparently shallow examinations of moral issues does not mean that the series needs to redirect its focus. Viewers should realize going in that this is a presentation of one woman’s life, complete with all the frustrations and joys facing millions of working women, and viewers of both sexes will have a better understanding of various demands on those women. That in itself is complex, so the show really can’t be faulted for not taking on other, “weighty” concerns. Nevertheless, some critics have faulted the show for its lack of perspective on moral issues, while viewers have flocked to the show, much in the same way they flocked to Little House on the Prairie. An overview of Judging Amy bulletin boards on the Internet indicates that fans are not interested in sub-text and editorializing; they are attracted by the warmth of the characters and want to follow these characters through their daily lives. Perhaps the show’s strategy is best summarized in the words of advice that Maxine delivers to Amy:
Know what I read the other day? That Denver, Colorado, is moving closer to San Francisco, California, by an inch every ten years. An inch every ten years. That’s the way the Rocky Mountains were formed, and that’s the way the world changes. Not by stamping your foot to get your way. Not even by the bang of a gavel. It’s by the choices we make, you know? All the time, you do what you think is right, every time. Slowly, the world starts to change. That’s how we leave our imprint on life. An inch every ten years.
The changes in Amy’s life new home, new job, new lifestyle may have come suddenly, but her adaptations to these changes come slowly, an inch at a time. This is Judge Amy Gray’s story, and, as is the case most often in real life, it is not one that focuses on matters of concern for the intelligentsia. That is not a criticism of shows like the brilliant Sopranos, but a reflection of the fact that television has room for a variety of dramas, from the plain to the profound. All in all, Judging Amy is an entertaining hour of television. Although there is room for improvement, it nevertheless presents us with characters and situations we can relate to and become involved with. Led by the formidable talents of Brenneman and Daly, Judging Amy has become an oasis for viewers seeking adult family drama without lectures on what we as individuals and as a society should be.
Judging Amy begins its second season on Tuesday, October 10th.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/judging-amy/