'Judging Amy' Puts Drama Above the Bar

Ally McBeal wouldn't be caught dead in Amy Gray's
courtroom. With all the messy child-custody and
youth-crime cases, there'd be no time for singing,
fantasizing or taking a moment.

Still, 14 million people have been tuning in each week.

The West Wing and Once and Again may be more
groundbreaking or sexy, but those numbers make
Judging Amy the most popular new drama of the season.

Is it a "chick" show? Sure. But not your grandmother's.

Starring Amy Brenneman in the title role, the CBS series
moves at a swift pace, packing several storylines into
each episode without feeling the compulsion to wrap
them all up neatly.

In fact, since its pilot aired last fall, Judging Amy has left a
trail of melancholy in its wake, whether it's Amy's
dissolved marriage, her complicated relationship with her
social-worker mother Maxine (TV

icon Tyne Daly) or the way her little girl Lauren (Karle
Warren) acts out like a real kid would in difficult, changing

The show's message is that everything isn't necessarily
going to be OK, and even when it is, emotional pain is
along for the ride. Ms. Brenneman came up with the idea
for Judging Amy herself, basing it on her relationship with
her own mother, a Connecticut juvenile-court judge.

Before this, Ms. Brenneman was best known for her
Emmy-nominated turn as Janice Licalsi, David Caruso's
gangland-connected love interest during the first season
of NYPD Blue.

She brings that same kind of soulful angst and
determination to the part of Amy Gray, a single mom who
has left a corporate-law career behind in New York and
returned home to Hartford, Conn., after separating from
her husband.

Though the character is now working as a juvenile-court
judge, the lowest rung in the judicial ladder, Judging Amy
isn't really a court- room drama. The show spends more
time around the homefront, where the three generations
of Gray women are living together, often uneasily.

Judge Gray also has two brothers (Dan Futterman and
Marcus Giamatti), a sister-in-law (Jessica Tuck) and her
court-services officer (Richard T. Jones) - a quiet,
stern-on-the-outside, sensitive-on-the-inside type - to
contend with.

The show has a liberal bent; Judge Gray doesn't approve
of spanking or guns.

Sometimes, the realism of its unhappy endings is
undermined by the judge's seemingly unrealistic ability to
delay decisions until she has more time to investigate and

Judging Amy also contains little humor, save for the
occasional surreal storyline involving the judge's
assistant Donna (Jillian Armenante). Donna is the
roommate of the judge's brother Vincent (Mr. Futterman),
and she's married to a convicted murderer. But her life is
as poignant as it is funny.

More bothersome is that the proceedings usually get
treacly at one point or another every week, especially with
overly expository dialogue and strained metaphors.

In Tuesday's season finale, Russell (Andrew Rothenberg),
a childhood friend of Vincent's, turns up in Judge Gray's
courtroom. His ex-wife is trying to terminate his parental
rights because their kids are always having accidents
when they're with him. He also keeps guns around the

After Judge Gray requires his visits to be supervised,
Russell calls himself a loser. "You took French, I took
shop," he tells Vincent. "I knew what was what."

Luckily, that kind of schematic symbolism is balanced by
a deeper plot about Maxine and her boyfriend Jared
(Richard Crenna). Rarely is a love affair between seniors
dramatized so truthfully, complete with children who don't
understand. Ms. Daly remains a compelling performer.

There's also one of those unhappy endings involving a
client of Maxine's and a cliffhanger or three that'll have
regular viewers fretting all summer.

But not to worry. Judging by the show's consistency,
good and bad, Judging Amy should be on the case for a
long time.