Actresses rule the courtroom in the new lineup of TV shows

Rick Bentley, The Fresno Bee

It's judgment day on television. The conflict and drama that comes from courtroom battles is the new foundation of television's hottest trend: Shows that deal with law and disorder. The courtroom trend has taken over from last year's scorching display of programs loaded with sexually mad, creature-chased and popularity-vexed teens.

Here's the evidence: "Ally McBeal," "Judging Amy," "Family Law" and "Work With Me." Those new law shows join "Law & Order," "JAG" and "The Practice," a two-time Emmy winner for best drama. You can't swing a Nielsen Ratings viewer through the television dial and not hit someone headed to court.

A trait these shows share is that the scales of justice are tipped toward women portraying prominent characters. Law shows have become the one television format that guarantees actresses strong roles.

Kathleen Quinlan, who plays a wife, mother and lawyer forced to be on her own on the new Monday night CBS series "Family Law," says television is more woman-friendly these days. The proliferation of law shows with all the strong female roles convinced Quinlan "there's more of an opportunity to work on a character here (in TV) than I found recently."

Who started the trend? Although the daytime show "Judge Judy" might be an obvious choice, the guilty party is the fantasy-prone, miniskirted, unicorn-lover "Ally McBeal." The success of the Fox series -- loaded to the rafters with strong female characters -- triggered the filling of the TV docket with law shows.

Women have had strong roles on "Law & Order" and "JAG" for years. Those dramas are a different breed of law show. Where it is nothing new for a character on "Ally McBeal" to show their personal legal briefs, "Law & Order" and "JAG" stick more to the letter of television law and don't show much of the characters' lives outside their jobs. "The Practice" shows both worlds can co-exist. "Family Law" and "Judging Amy" follow the lead of "The Practice."

Amy Brenneman knew before she came up with the concept for her new CBS series, "Judging Amy," that the real lives of lawyers and judges could be as exciting as a big court case. The former "NYPD Blue" graduate was part of the legal life at home long enough to know. Both of her parents practice law.

"My mother was a superior court judge who is in juvenile matters like the character that I play," Brenneman says. Her father is an environmental lawyer.

As a youngster, Brenneman was drawn to the arts and acting. But with that kind of home life, she wavered between a career in law or the arts. Brenneman's parents knew the path they wanted her to follow. They would often ask when -- not if -- she was going to go to law school. After some soul-searching, she decided to stick with acting. Now, she gets to bring all of her exposure to a woman who was a strong mother and judge to the television courtroom.

"We're hoping to show that Amy's method of being a judge is not always coming up with years and years of wisdom, but asking the right questions," Barbara Hall, executive producer of "Judging Amy," says.

The one thing Brenneman, Quinlan and "Family Law's" Julie Warner have to watch out for are comparisons to "Ally McBeal," which won an Emmy this year as best comedy. If you follow a popular show in the same format too closely, it doesn't take a smart district attorney to connect the dots.

"I think obviously a young, ambitious, single, female, white (woman) may get pigeonholed that way," Warner says. "I'm looking forward to playing a lot of the more eccentric cases and quirkier cases.

"I think my character probably will deal with a lot of the things that David Kelley (creator of "Ally McBeal" and "The Practice") is trying to deal with in that show: generations, being single, looking for love, idealism."