It's dinnertime at the Gray household, and stage 18 on the Paramount Studios lot is heady with the smell of Chinese food. Around the family kitchen table, Amy Brenneman and her "Judging Amy" co-stars are rehearsing lines and cracking jokes -- when Ms. Brenneman sticks chopsticks in her ears, she elicits especially large laughs -- while wolfing the scene's meal: cartons of kung pao beef.
"Oh no, you're not actually eating?" asks the director, Ken Olin ("Thirtysomething," "L.A. Doctors"), rolling his eyes at the thought of his cast gagging their way through take 100. "That is such a big mistake."
Gustatory choices notwithstanding, CBS's "Judging Amy," shown on Tuesdays at 10 P.M., has become one of the new season's more unexpected successes largely because of such realism. The series is about a newly separated single mother (Ms. Brenneman) who quits a high-powered Manhattan legal practice to move back home to Hartford with her young daughter, played by Karle Warren. There she works as a juvenile court judge and lives with her hard-nosed social-worker mother (Tyne Daly) and underachieving brother (Dan Futterman).
"Judging Amy" was created by Ms. Brenneman, who is in her mid-30's. It is based on the real-life story of the actress's mother, Superior Court Judge Frederica Brenneman, one of the first women to earn a law degree from the Harvard Law School and the second woman to be named a judge in Connecticut.
"My mom was appointed a juvenile court judge in Hartford in 1967, and as the daughter of a trailblazer I was interested in exploring that," said Ms. Brenneman, who, like her series counterpart, grew up in Glastonbury, a Hartford suburb, and later attended Harvard University.
"I also know that you need a good source of stories to fuel a series," added the actress, who had played the sexy, embittered Officer Janice Licalsi on the first season of "N.Y.P.D. Blue." "From hanging around my mom's court, I know there are very moving stories to be told about the juvenile justice system."
Ms. Brenneman also knew that in making her return to prime time after a five-year absence spent working in such feature films as "Heat" and "Your Friends and Neighbors," she wanted to create something far grittier than the usual woman's fare. "I wanted to go deeper than you can in films and tell more stories about one character," she said. "But I see all this TV programming aimed at women that is so soft and sentimental, and I can't bear that."
Ms. Brenneman came up with idea for her series during a recent visit back home to her mother's court. "I thought juvenile court was perfect because you can't be overly sentimental in court, " she said. Nor could one be overly sentimental in the Brenneman household, judging by the sparks that fly between family members on "Judging Amy."
"I wanted these characters to be strong and smart but flawed," said Ms. Brenneman, who also used her family's emotional landscape as a model for the series. The actress, who grew up with two older brothers and a live-in grandmother, described her mother as a "witty person who has enormous heart but who can also be really strong." She added, "We were like the preacher's kids." (Unlike the character in the series, though, Ms. Brenneman's mother, now a semiretired judge in Bridgeport, remains married, to Russell Brenneman, an environmental lawyer.)
"My mother had to be really objective in court," Ms. Brenneman said, "and then she came home and had these three adolescents who were putting her through some of the same stuff, and her objectivity just flew out the window."
That lack of sentiment toward family relationships proved to be the selling point when Ms. Brenneman began shopping her series to the networks last year and came away with a development deal at CBS. "It was something we hadn't seen before, what's it like to be a judge," said Nina Tassler, the senior vice president for drama development at CBS. "We also saw it as a way to do a family show with more edge."
That edge also proved to be the selling point with critics and audiences. Although initially compared to NBC's "Providence," a family drama that features a feisty curly-haired single career woman who moves back home to a working-class New England town (among cattier Hollywood circles, Ms. Brenneman's series was dubbed "Hartford"), "Judging Amy" has quickly carved out its own territory. "Providence without the treacle," wrote The New York Times's chief television critic, Caryn James.
"This is obviously compared to 'Providence' because it features a woman and dramas have been so male-dominated for so long, but the two are very different," said the executive producer of "Judging Amy," Barbara Hall ("Chicago Hope," "Moonlighting"). "This shows a very realistic single mother, someone who is not so angst-ridden, but who is funny and even sarcastic," added Ms. Hall, pointing out that although Ms. Brenneman wears judicial robes in the series, it is Tyne Daly who actually plays her mother's character while Ms. Brenneman portrays a woman more like herself.
"This is really about Amy exploring her relationship with her mother," Ms. Hall said, "but then, who isn't?"
Ms. Brenneman said, "I've always been interested in my relationship with my mom." The actress asked her mother to serve as one of the series's legal consultants.
As for her own role, Ms. Brenneman said it was liberating to play a woman closer to her own personality. "I loved 'N.Y.P.D. Blue,' but it was essentially one tone -- brooding. And in the movies I got known for playing these soulful damaged women, so it's great to play someone a bit closer to me," she said.
Unlike her series counterpart, Ms. Brenneman remains married, to the director Brad Siberling. "We don't have kids yet, so playing the mother of a 7-year-old is where the acting comes in," she said.
As for the demanding shooting schedule, she said she felt "like Dennis Franz."
"The good news is you don't sweat every scene because you're in so much, but the downside is an embarrassment of riches," she said, adding with a rueful laugh, "I actually had a little cry in my trailer yesterday because I missed my life."