In handicapping this season's three dozen new prime-time series, most critics and ad buyers
dismissed "Judging Amy" as a "Providence" wannabe--another mushy tale about a newly single woman,
with a flamboyant mane of brown hair, who jettisons her big-bucks career to pursue more fulfilling work
and reconnect family ties.
Well, so much for punditry. Five weeks into the fall TV campaign the CBS drama starring "NYPD Blue"
alumna Amy Brenneman as a divorced family court judge raising a young daughter has emerged as the
season's most surprising hit, much like the debut of "Providence" in January.
Airing at 10 p.m. Tuesdays, "Judging Amy" is averaging 15.5 million viewers a week--tops among new
programs except for "Stark Raving Mad," the NBC comedy sandwiched between "Frasier" and "ER."
Moreover, its ratings have held steady while viewing of the more critically heralded new drama opposite
it, ABC's "Once and Again," has dwindled.
"It is way beyond our expectations," said CBS Television President Leslie Moonves, who has already
ordered an entire season of the series and conceded he would have done so had the show attracted
two-thirds as many viewers as it is currently.
The accomplishment is all the more notable given the labyrinthine path "Amy" followed to the screen, as
well as the material's personal connection to both the show's star and its creative steward, executive
producer Barbara Hall.
Initiated by Brenneman and her manager, Connie Tavel, the program was inspired by the actress'
mother, Superior Court Judge Frederica Brenneman in Connecticut. When it became clear an early
version would not make the cut, Hall was brought in at the last minute to shape the project.
"It seemed an obvious choice to let a woman write this story, but it just worked out that a lot of the
same things that were happening in this pilot were also happening in my life," she said. "It didn't hurt that
it was about a single mother working in this male-dominated profession and completely changing her life,
which is something I did about three years ago."
CBS was still dubious enough about the project that it asked the producers to shoot only a handful of
scenes rather than a complete series prototype. "Amy" was ultimately ordered, but the more coveted
Monday berth went to "Family Law," another new show that is also doing well.
Like the title character--who moves from New York to Hartford, Conn.--Hall has a young daughter,
7-year-old Faith, seen fleetingly in the opening credits as a picture of young Amy. After her divorce Hall
also changed venues, moving to New York and briefly giving up TV to pursue her other career as a
novelist. Her seventh book, "A Week in New Orleans," will be published next year.
A Virginia native who moved to Los Angeles after graduating from James Madison University, Hall
began writing comedy but soon found a place in drama, working under the creative tandem of Joshua
Brand and John Falsey on the acclaimed series "A Year in the Life," "I'll Fly Away" and "Northern
"I feel like I've had the best TV parents in the world," she said, also citing David Chase, creator of "The
Sopranos," whom she worked with on "I'll Fly Away."
Finding Her Niche With Gentle Dramas
Still, Hall struggled to launch projects on her own, developing a trio of passed-on concepts that helped
forge her partnership with Joseph Stern, a former "Law & Order" producer with whom she oversees
Two years ago--when ABC rejected "The Doyles," a bittersweet pilot about a rambunctious Irish
family--Hall began to wonder if her gentler approach no longer had a place in prime time.
"I certainly have a point of view, and 'Judging Amy' is very typical of what I like to do," she said, adding
with a laugh, "It felt like all those years when you were voting as a Democrat and the Republicans were
in, and it just felt like I'm never going to get my chance to make my vote matter."
Then along came "Providence," and to a lesser degree "7th Heaven," providing evidence such dramas
had their place.
Some within the industry see the popularity of these shows--once dismissed as too "soft" to compete
with grittier dramas--as a desire among many viewers for the comfort of "going home" as the millennium
Yet if a segment of the audience has again embraced this genre, critics clearly haven't. TV Guide, for
example, recently dismissed both "Judging Amy" and "Providence" as "pandering melodrama."
John Masius, the creator of "Providence," suggested there is a certain wish fulfillment in "the idea of
fast-tracking women having the ability to slow their lives down and reevaluate what's important, which is
all about family and roots."
That said, he attributed whatever success the shows are enjoying to solid execution, adding that any
similarities stem merely from the networks' penchant for emulating what appears to be working. "My
next guess is there will be a show called 'Albany' that revolves around a single policewoman," Masius
Regarding comparisons to "Providence," Hall said, "It bothers me only because I don't want people to
be dismissive of the show and feel they know what it is without looking at it.
"It's also a little bit of a double standard, because every time a cop drama comes on people aren't
screaming ' Steven Bochco.' There seems to be plenty of room on television for male-driven cop shows
and nobody starts claiming they're derivative, so they all get a fresh look."
Even so, Hall maintained she doesn't fret about critical response, pointing out that negative reviews are
far more annoying to novelists, who have no actors or directors with which to share the blame.
"When people are calling it a rip-off of 'Providence' and just looking at the fact that Amy has curly hair,
you just have to focus on the work and trust that the work is going to speak to somebody," she said.
As for the future, Hall said "Judging Amy" will keep trying to tell interesting courtroom stories mixed with
personal tales involving Amy and those in her life, among them her mother, played by Tyne Daly.
The writer is seeking a similar balance, having learned from her TV mentors the importance of delegating
responsibility--of allowing other writers' voices to be heard. For reasons both practical and personal,
Hall, who remarried last year, stressed she has no desire to find herself sequestered in the office at 11
p.m. banging out rewrites.
"I have a kid. I'm going home and having a life, because especially in my case, if I don't have that life, I
have nothing to write about," she said. "Everything in this show is taken from my life. If I stop living it,
I'm going to run out of story ideas."