'Judging Amy' lets inner woman come out

Title character
juggles professional, domestic roles

"Judging Amy" kicks off a season of TV dramas largely
defined by strong, single, non-teenage women with kids.
In the Age of Britney Spears, that's something. Along with
"Family Law" (Kathleen Quinlan) and "Once and Again"
(Sela Ward), "Judging Amy" lets the inner woman that
television so often represses or trivializes (or both,
because TV is capable of both) come roaring out.

"I live with my mother, I don't have sex, I carpool," says
Amy Gray, a recently separated, recently moved home to
Hartford from New York, and recently appointed juvenile
court judge played by Amy Brenneman ("NYPD Blue").
"Ma, it's practically the 21st century. The fallen- woman
syndrome doesn't apply anymore . . . does it?"

Based on the real-life story of Brenneman's mother,
"Judging Amy" revolves around Gray's juggling roles as
mother, daughter, sister, professional and wants-out wife.
Of course, none of those roles goes anywhere without
passing through her mother, Maxine (Tyne Daly), a retired
social worker who would just as soon say something
inappropriate as sneak a cigarette in the back yard.
"Jillian, how's the in vitro coming? Did it take this time?"
she asks her daughter-in-law at the dinner table. When
Jillian rushes out of the room, Maxine continues to the
flabbergasted faces around her, "She's never been shy
about it before. I know more about her ovaries than I do
my own."

A kind of battered barrier island between mother and
daughter is Amy's brother Vincent (Dan Futterman), a
writer who shampoos dogs for a vet to support himself
while writing a novel. He takes it from all sides --- a kind
loser-in-limbo to Maxine, a wailing wall to vent against her
mother to Amy. You gotta love him.

In fact, there's so much to love about this show that it's
too bad there isn't more to like. It's smarter and heads
deeper than " Providence," the hit NBC drama that it's
sure to be compared to. But it's also less welcoming. The
self-absorption here is at flood levels; people begin a
conversation with someone else only to talk about

Even in one of tonight's sweetest scenes, in which Amy
has a heart- to-heart with her 6-year-old (self-absorbed)
daughter, she ends a moving little speech by asking her
daughter, "How was that? Not too sappy?" It's just as
maddening in the courtroom. An anxious, inexperienced
Amy is portrayed at once as a know-nothing, Ally-esque
bumbler and a micromanager who dictates protocol to the
dedicated veterans around her.

This is a show that always wants it both ways, right down
to Amy' s being separated and not divorced. It needs to
decide soon --- or we'll be the judge.