Tonight, NBC airs the premiere episode of “Bad Judge,” a new legally themed sitcom starring television and film veteran Kate Walsh as a municipal court judge with a chaotic personal life. Created by Anne Heche and produced by Adam McKay and Will Ferrell, “Bad Judge” looks and feels like the legal version of the similarly named Cameron Diaz movie, “Bad Teacher.” As you might imagine, “Bad Judge” does not go out of its way to accurately depict the legal profession or the daily working lives of judges. Nonetheless, “Bad Judge” is certainly amusing if not believable once the aspirations for legal realism are set aside. Warning: Spoilers abound in the review below.
Walsh plays Rebecca Wright, whose life as a hard living, sexually charged woman intermingles with her career as a criminal court judge. Aided by stashed away liquor and sexual flings with the State’s expert witness in her chambers, she is somehow able to manage her judicial responsibilities despite her battles with hangovers and pregnancy scares. Through unorthodox sentencing methods (i.e. in the pilot episode, she orders a defendant to enroll in a college feminism class and to attend wearing an “I Am a Convicted Bigamist” t-shirt), she takes seriously the idea that the criminal code is a mechanism of rehabilitation rather than punishment. Despite the flaws in her personal life, Wright goes out of her way to aid the families of defendants while their loved ones are locked away.
At least in the first two episodes, the focus is exclusively on Wright and set primarily within the courthouse. Rounding out the cast are John Ducey as prosecutor Tom Barlow, Mather Zickel as Wright’s aforementioned expert witness love interest Dr. Gary Boyd, and Tone Bell as the awkwardly ever present bailiff Tedward Mulray.
The pilot primarily sets the stage for Wright’s life and career path. While fighting a hangover and after making a pit stop for a pregnancy test, Wright presides over a bail hearing for an alleged bigamist. Announced as one of the most prominent psychologists in all of California, Dr. Boyd testifies that the bigamist is a flight risk and, thus, Wright denies bail. Shortly thereafter, Wright and Boyd retire to chambers to continue what is apparently an on-again, off-again sexual relationship. Wright then leaves the courthouse to serve as “counsel” for Robby Shoemaker (Theodore Barnes), the child of persons previously sentenced by Wright, as he awaits punishment at his elementary school for drawing derogatory pictures of his teacher. Later, she returns to the courthouse in order to convict and sentence the aforementioned bigamist.
The second episode, “Meteor Shower,” is much of the same. Rather than stopping for a pregnancy test, Wright’s pilgrimage to the courthouse is interrupted in order for her to place a fireman’s axe into the front tire of an angry motorist’s convertible. Wright presides over the “trial” of a teen actress and welcomes the paparazzi with a double-fisted, middle finger salute. After getting stood up by Dr. Boyd, Wright gets a little too high and has to call EMS after eating two pot brownies stolen from the evidence locker. Not to be deterred, Wright gets back on her feet, returns to the courthouse, and sentences the teen actress to four weeks of seclusion at a convent so that she can “find herself.”
From a legal perspective, “Bad Judge” has it all wrong. The show is so legally inaccurate, one has to wonder if the writers intentionally made it so. From the timing of the legal proceedings to the courtroom candor and unethical conduct of Wright and the attorneys alike, it seems implausible that the writers engaged in any research whatsoever. If “Bad Judge” is the product of legal research, then that research is the equivalent of writing a doctoral thesis with Wikipedia as a primary source.
Giving them the benefit of the doubt, we will assume that the writers intentionally made no attempt to create an accurate portrayal of the legal system. And, that is okay. There is nothing worse than a show that contains just enough realism to make it believable while butchering key components and leaving the general public with absurd ideas about the legal system. No one will come away from watching “Bad Judge” thinking they have gained some insight into the inner workings of a courtroom. Clearly, that is not the purpose of the show. ”Bad Judge” is a comedy centered around Wright’s disheveled life. While the character is a polar opposite of her previous roles in “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Private Practice,” Walsh plays the role brilliantly. And, in this, “Bad Judge” certainly delivers.
The pilot episode airs tonight at 9:00 EST on NBC.