By David Kronke
Episode 13 in the production schedule for Judging Amy, Amy Brennemans new hit television series on CBS, could have become the new poster child for triskaidekaphobia (well save you the run to the dictionaryits fear of the number 13). Plagued with mishaps and curious occurrences, that episodeshot from before Christmas through the New Yearboasted travails attributable either to the paroxysms of the Y2K bug that otherwise never got off the ground or to monumentally weird coincidence.
Well start off with the relatively small stuff and work our way up: the honey wagona Hollywood euphemism for a trailer containing bathroom facilitiesslipped off its moorings and smashed into an executives car parked on the Paramount lot, where the show films. Two crew people got terribly sickone with pneumonia, another with a violent coughing fit. Co-star Dan Futterman likewise fell ill, lost his voice, and couldnt work.
That wasnt the end of it. Diminutive Karle Warren, who plays Lauren, Amys six-year-old daughter, was toying with a Dustbuster when what can only be described as a freak accident left her with a black eye and the director scrambling to shoot around her swollen socket. Tyne Daly, who stars as the mother of Brennemans character, was injured in an auto crackup. I had a concussion and a blue ankle for awhile, she recalls. I was thoroughly shaken, like Muhammad Ali had punched me in the heart. I came in missing about a quarter of my English words. Its interesting, learning lines with a concussion.
Surely thats all. Nope. Oh, Daly adds, dispassionately, and Amy burned her trailer down.
Actually, sitting in her new trailer, the charred remains of her favorite book of poetry on a table behind her, Brenneman wishes to differ. I assumed it was a candle that flipped over, she says, but I looked at some photos and noticed that all the candles werent all melted, and now they think it was an electrical thing. I felt like Nancy Drew, because I actually figured it out.
Whew. Next year, Daly declares with a hearty laugh, well do what they used to do in old-fashioned hotels: Well have episode 12 , and then episode 14.
Happily, everyone has recovered, and besides, these ordeals represent virtually the only bad news to bedevil Brenneman and company since Judging Amy debuted back in September. Judging Amy stars Brenneman as Amy Gray, a Connecticut family-law judge and newly single mother, whose estranged husband has stayed behind in New York City. She has moved home to Hartford to accept the judgeshipand back in with her expansively opinionated mother, an ace social worker named Maxine (Daly) ; her closest confidante is her sensitive brother, Vincent (Futterman).
Amy quickly emerged as the surprise breakout hit of the TV season, easily beating the more highly touted and publicized Once and Again. It earned Brenneman a Golden Globe nomination for best actress in a TV drama and, along with Daly and Futterman, top nominations in the TV Guide Awards. Brennemans former series, NYPD Blue, stepped in on Tuesday nights opposite Amy in January and initially scored higher numbers, but that didnt translate into any loss of audience for Amy, which remains high in the ratings. In fact, a month later, Amy was beating Brennemans old show, rankng number 16 to NYPD Blues 21 in late February Nielsen ratings.
But there are no hard feelings. Brenneman just happened to be sitting down the row from her former boss, NYPD Blue creator Steven Bochco, at a Eurythmics concert late last year. I climbed all over these people and I sat in his lap and said, Well, I guess theres room in network television for both of us. We kind of laughed and he said, Im really happy for you.
Brenneman, who co-created the series, based her characters career on her own mothers, who was the second female judge in the state of Connecticut. (Daly, playing the social worker mother, essays the ground-breaking aspect of Brennemans mothers career, and though both of the characters are currently single on the show, the real-life mom is still happily married.) At the beginning, there were many, many stories that came right out of either my experiences with my family or cases that my mom had, says Brenneman, gorgeously natural between scenes in her trailer. Shes comfortable in form-fitting black slacks and Doc Marten shoes, and a crimson cardigan over a white t-shirt sporting the navy silhouette of a lunging panther. Her hair is pinnd up on the back of her head, and the hairdo, on this show, is a key detail: On the set, atop a video monitor, sits a Judge Amy doll, one with long brunette hair, thats usually styled after Brennemans own thickly elegant coif in any given scenepinned up when she means business, loose and flowing when shes relaxing or accentuating her sensual nature.
Brennemans mother serves as a nonpaid technical adviser on the show, but only in the sense that she helps with verisimilitude concerning Connecticut minutiae; her most important contribution, of course, was bringing up Amy.
Her spirit is the influence, Brenneman says. My mother had me when she was older, although now its not considered older. All her buddies got married at 22, had babies by 25, and I think my mother actually really wouldve liked to do that, but she didnt meet my dad until a little bit later. She had this kind of drive in her career, but always said she would drop the career if she needed to or if her kids needed her to.
So I think Ive always had that drive and that pushsometimes to my detriment, Brenneman continues. I mean, sometimes Ill take on a project and Ill think Oh, itll be mellow, and itll consume my day and night until its done. So I think that is similar to her.
On the other hand, she takes pains to stress that her show features [family] dynamics that dont exist in my family. I have two brothers. They are not these brothers [depicted in the show; besides Vincent, the other is a recurring character whos a materialistic doofus]. Actually, the brothers [in the show] are [based on] brothers of a friend of mine. Thats how I first thought of these brothersI sort of borrowed hers. But one of my [real] brothers gets asked, Which brother are you? and he says, Well, Im not actually But its more fun [for viewers] to believe that hes one of em. But you dont want to drag people to where they dont want to go, you know? Fame is a weird thing that way.
At the core of the series lies a fairly ingenious irony. Amy Gray frequently feels out of her element at home, dealing with her daughter and her soon-to-be-ex-husband, and yet her job as family judge dictates that she employ Solomon-like wisdom in dealing with other dysfunctional families.
As Futterman puts it, They hit on a great parallelAmys work and her life at home, the family court and the court of her family, how to be a mom, how to be a daughter, and then her telling people how to do that in a family. Theres a resonance there that people seem to be picking up on.
Family, in all its variations, is the centerpiece of Judging Amy. Executive producer Barbara Hall, a one-time single mother since remarried, was attracted by the opportunity to write about single motherhood. When I got divorced, I had to get busy creating a family for my daughter, because I wasnt going to let her grow up without a family, says Hall, who previously worked on such acclaimed programs as Ill Fly Away, Moonlighting, and Northern Exposure. She came into the Amy project nearly at the last minute, knocked out her scriptfollowing the failed attempts of other writersin a mere five days, and earned the networks thumbs-up for the series. We dont really try to depict the perfect mother-daughter relationship, but they still have a relationship. And people dont totally change their characters in order to get along. They just accept each other.
People dont live with their mothers and move home to become judges or anything, Hall allows, but I do think one thing that is familiar to people is that families dont all look the same. When the ideal married situation doesn't work out, that doesnt mean that family life is over; you can construct families out of other scenarios.
What makes Judging Amy such a distinctive series is the passion for the stories and the characters that its principals bring to it. As Brenneman recalls, Last spring, someone said to me, Wow, you really need to tell this story. And I guess I do. And I can imagine that Tyne, who has three daughters and was on the cutting edge of being a woman lead [in Cagney and Lacey], I think Tyne has a great need to tell the story. I think Barbara has a great need to tell the story of a single mother.
And I think when you actually have a need to tell the story, thats a lot. These days Ill read scripts that I like and go, Yeah, its great, but you know what? I bet another woman can actually play this. I would be able to pull it off but somebody out there is going to say, Ive got to do that part. And those are the people that should do them. I think theres that kind of passion for this.
Daly observes, Whats interesting is, Amys character is based on the job her mother did, not her mother. Barbara Hall is interested in writing about single mothers and their daughters, and raising your daughter by yourself, and divorce, and other issues shes lived. I get an imaginary woman, somebody to make up, really. It has to be specific and particular in some ways and in other ways, everybodys mom.
In the [beginning], I thought they missed how furious Maxine was about having all her grown-up children back, Daly adds with a hearty laugh. Its fine to say, Yes, darling, I know youre in pain, and the doors open and stay here as long as you want to. And after about four months of that nonsense, you start to wonder, When is she going to kick in on the mortgage? That territorial invasion was what I was interested in.
Daly concludes: Theres been a lot of writing about mothers, and theyre variously idiotic or evil.I think theres something else [in this show] another human being with her own set of concerns, together with her grown-up daughter, which is where the acting opportunity is for me.
One of the things that Amy and Tyne both do with their characters, Hall says, is depict people whore just doing their jobs and not really in a position of telling other people how to live because no one here is qualified to do that. I have no interest in sending a message about how people should be living their lives. Its just trying to show people doing their work and making the best choices and judgements that they can in the moment. And were not saying theyre always right.
That realistic depiction of family dynamics is crucial for Brenneman, We just dida string of episodes in which Im just really bitchy to my mother and daughter, she says. As the keeper of my characters flame and as a person who likes to be liked, its a very interesting thingto push it as far as you can push it, and to actually risk moments where somebodys going to go, Thats pretty abusive. But then you look at your own life and, you know, one of the facets of passionate love is getting really grouchy. So in that way I think we strike a chord with people.
Hall concurs. Audience tests revealed those things were key to the shows success, she says. I was surprised how much they really got behind the idea of this mother and daughter who are really strong-minded and speak their minds and are funny and caustic, she says. We found out from focus groups that people really enjoy what you call the you-go-girl moments. When Amy or Tyne really prevail, people like that, and when they speak up for themselves, people like that.
Judging Amys success comes when a number of seriesincluding Everybody Loves Raymond, Providence, and 7th Heavenare winning large audiences by portraying either large nuclear families or multiple generations living under one roof or in very close proximity. But Daly doesnt think these shows are leading a trend. I dont think television leads anything. I think we reflect. Part of that may be the idea that it takes a village. Multiple generations [living together]happens in other societies and used to happen in our society. Now weve become fragmented and theres a yearning for that. I think thats reflected in these shows.
In spite of her passion for Judging Amy, the show isnt Brennemans only interest. She appears in the film Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her, a series of vignettes about women co-starring Glenn Close, Holly Hunter, Cameron Diaz, and Calista Flockhart, due in theaters this month. Her husband, Brad Silberling, a film director (Casper, City of Angels) whom Brenneman met when he worked on NYPD Blue, is developing a dark comedy he wrote entitled Babys in Black.
He wrote this about five years ago, she says. It takes so much patience, the inertia of these development situations. Im getting spoiledbecause here, you get an idea and about four weeks later you can see it in production.
And in truth, Brenneman allows, shes a little daunted by the success that she has helped to create.
I was thinking, Well do 13 episodes and well be [cancelled] and so in spring Ill do a little [film or play], she admits. I was very peaceful about that. Now, Im, like, amazed. Look, we didnt think wed sell the idea, we didnt think theyd pick it up for a scriptnone of it. And so, truly, each step has been a gas. Im happy. Im happy. We got our 13 episodes. So the success meant an adjustment and definitely moments of, Wow, what does this mean for my marriage, for my movie career, for starting a family, for all those things?
Yeah, Im kind of freaked out.