Chic to be Catholic
Suddenly it’s chic to be Catholic. First came Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen), the liberal, humane but power-hungry pivot of NBC’s West Wing. Now comes First Monday‘s Joe Novelli (Joe Mantegna), newest recruit to a US Supreme Court evenly split between right and left. But these characters are Catholics cosmetically enhanced for Middle America, Catholics reshaped as anodyne Protestants. Sure, they attend Mass. They even confess. But when conscience and Church doctrine clash, individual conscience always wins out.
In his first two decisions for the Court, Novelli first supports a death row execution (a striking parallel to an early, similarly character-defining moment for Bartlet in West Wing), then upholds a young woman’s right to an abortion, both diametrically opposed to the Catholic view (one of them, anyway) that both are judicially sanctioned murders. So why do these shows deploy Catholicism, or, indeed, any other religion that rigidly (at least in theory) enforces a doctrinal moral code?
In First Monday, even more than in The West Wing, religious belief functions as a dramatic (and heavy-handed) shortcut. On the one hand, it pronounces the protagonist’s moral decency: he’s a good, God-fearing guy. On the other, it frames the show’s ideological message, that nothing, not even a prior allegiance to a God, can supercede the American Constitution and the rule of its law… whether that law makes any contemporary sense or not.
In The West Wing, the complexity of the storylines and the vividness of the supporting characters and their competing prejudices complicate the show’s fundamentally conservative message, that even when liberals run the White House, the status quo will always win out. In this CBS think-alike, though, the limp caricatures that pass for Supreme Court clerks and the nation’s most distinguished judges simply emphasize that the show’s purpose is neither insight into the human or the legal dramas of the Court. Instead, First Monday means to reassure: it’s a weekly sermon on law’s social role as a marker of what is, not as a potentially radical reshaper of what might be. In this show, Law Does Nothing to Rock the Boat.
Much of First Monday‘s failure to window-dress its politics as entertainment lies in its casting (or more accurately, miscasting), particularly of Joe Mantegna as Novelli. On the big screen, Mantegna’s almost catatonic physical impassivity can prove dazzling, heightening viewers’ awareness of the artificiality of the medium while intensifying their focus on the character trapped within this unresponsive body and blank face. Add the tension between the warmth of his voice and his uninflected delivery (which suits so well, for example, the ironic enigmas posed by David Mamet’s movies, House of Games and Homicide), and Mantegna can provide a compelling performance and a tantalizing blank canvas on which the audience can project its own anxieties and hopes.
With television, though, relationships between protagonist and audience are individual, person to person. The tight close-ups, the rosy gold lighting, and the sharp demarcation between actor and mise-en-scene (all characteristic of Bellisario’s productions) emphasize the intimacy on which the show’s appeal to the audience rests. But Mantegna just can’t sustain the unselfconscious naturalism this style of television demands. When Novelli ushers his puppyish clerks out of his office in the 25 January episode, Mantegna’s stiff arms rise so half-heartedly that an avuncular gesture of friendly dismissal turns into an automaton’s jerk. He fixes his own children with such skeptical stares that he looks like he only met them for the first time the previous day, and even his sweet compliments to his wife seem to carry an undercurrent of threat.
Only when Novelli actually does threaten someone—his parish priest (on 18 January)—does Mantegna connect with the camera: the reared-back head, the stiff neck, the menacing lack of affect in his voice are quite chilling, and, alas, far more suited to an intimation of sudden and violent death than a request that the nuns at his daughter’s school stop lobbying her about the Court’s upcoming abortion decision.
Still, at least Mantegna can act, even if he is acting here as if he were playing in something quite different to the program that appears on the screen. With the honorable exceptions of James Garner and Charles Durning, the remaining justices and the clerks exude all the conviction of small-town repertory players. Novelli’s clerks, Miguel (Randy Vasquez), Ellie (Hedy Burress), and Jerry (Christopher Wiehl), strike three consistent notes: breathless, downcast, and smug. And while they display all the preternaturally scrubbed innocence and unpinched optimism of the twenty-something Capitol Hill staffers who crowd DC’s late-night restaurants and bars, they unleash none of the formidable intelligence that snares Supreme Court clerkships.
The older characters are done in by lack of material. All too infrequently, the brief interludes in the Chief Justice’s chambers, as Thomas Brankin (James Garner) and Henry Hoskins (Charles Durning) swap misanthropic apercus, suggest what First Monday might have achieved in its search for a behind the scenes peep at the country’s most powerful lawmakers. In the fiddling with a tie, the weary leaning against the arm of a chair, or the swirling of malt in a crystal glass, the ruined faces and aging bodies of Garner and Durning merge with the merciless power-brokers they represent.
It would be too cruel (and viciously unjust) to blame the actors alone for First Monday‘s problems. These scripts suck. The first three episodes clunk through predictable hot-button issues (the death penalty, the conflict between parental rights and a young woman’s right to an abortion, the identification of witnesses in the prosecution of vengeful criminals) with all the subtlety of a bored civics teacher enduring Friday’s last class. In fact, the laborious unveiling of Novelli’s routes to his decisions is downright patronizing. These episodes have a ‘60s, Perry-Masonish feel (albeit attached to ‘90s production values), lecturing to the audience as if the fine engagement with the law’s troubling irrationality that characterizes so much of Hill Street Blues, L. A. Law, Law & Order, and the first seasons of NYPD Blue and Ally McBeal, had never occurred.
But I do have one hope for this show. The 25 January episode showed Novelli and his clerk excitedly poring over a letter from James Madison, written in the last quarter of the 18th century, to decide that witnesses (whatever the dangers they might subsequently face) should not appear anonymously in 21st-century courtrooms. The scene might have been chosen to illustrate the cleverness of their research or the encapsulated wisdom of America’s legal heritage, or even the uncanny prescience of the Founding Fathers. But for a moment, the heightened artificiality of the show exposed the even greater artificiality of the pretense that the rights of individuals within a complex, post-industrial super-power can really be safeguarded by an unmediated recourse to the philosophies of a group of elitist, 18th-century colonial aristocrats. It would be ironic if First Monday‘s uncomplicated reverence for the Supreme Court proved more radicalizing than the biting exposes of much more intelligent, thoughtful, and incisive shows.