Monday, September 19, 2016

Judging Amy season 6

"I reject the notion that there is such a thing as an irredeemable child."
-- Judge Amy Gray, Judging Amy Season 6

Judging Amy premiered on CBS in the fall of 1999. It aired Tuesdays at 10, a perennial problem spot for the network; their last hit series there had been The Garry Moore Show in 1964. For thirty-five years, they'd been filling the timeslot with news magazines, or the second half of a two-hour movie; occasionally, they'd order up a new drama, which would stumble out of the gate (anyone remember Island Son, Dellaventura or Four Corners?), and back would come the CBS Tuesday Night Movie. But audiences who had taken to Amy Brenneman in her Emmy-nominated role on NYPD Blue found themselves once again in love with Amy. The series premiered to critical carping (an outwardly similar show, Providence, had debuted the previous winter, and critics were content to dismiss Amy as derivative), but audiences knew better. Even if they didn't recognize quite how original it was (and it was), they knew how engaging it was. It ran for six seasons, securing a host of Emmy and Golden Globe nominations and one win.

Judging Amy began with a script by Bill D'Elia and John Tinker, but it wasn't what Brenneman and her agent Connie Tavel were looking for, so they went hunting for an overhaul, and good fortune brought them to Barbara Hall. Hall retained some of the characters, but otherwise, wrote an entirely new pilot. The premise? Following a messy divorce, high-powered New York attorney Amy Gray returns, daughter in tow, to her family home in Hartford, CT, where she moves in with her mother (the formidable Tyne Daly) and forges a new career as a juvenile court judge. (Brenneman's own mother was a juvenile court justice; Hall had, a few years earlier, gone through a divorce while caring for a three-year-old child -- it was a perfect match.) Amy's mother Maxine is a case worker for the Department of Children and Families, so apart from the personal stories centering around the Gray family (Amy's younger brother Vincent is an aspiring writer; her older brother Peter runs the family insurance company), most episodes included "procedural" aspects -- the cases that Amy tried in her courtroom, the cases that Maxine handled for DCF -- that kept it from dissolving into soap opera. (Hall described it at the time a "drama with honest humor" that was "50 perfect courtroom drama, 50 percent single mother's personal life.") The result was CBS' biggest drama hit in five years.

Behind the scenes, Judging Amy benefited from a split hierarchy. Hall's partner Joseph Stern headed up production, allowing Hall to focus on the scripts, which she did, masterfully. Hall stuck around for the first four seasons, which enjoyed strong, typically top-20 ratings; she left after Season 4 to launch Joan of Arcadia, and relinquished the reins to her sister Karen Hall and to Alex Taub. Both had been working on the show as writing producers; once they took charge, though, they ushered in a format shift. Barbara Hall maintained a careful balance between the personal stories and Amy and Maxine's cases; the new showrunners focused more on the relationships: the new man in Amy's life, assistant D.A. David McClaren; Maxine's budding romance with landscape artist Ignacio Messina; and Amy's daughter Lauren's crush on a boy in her class, Victor, who -- in a coincidence that is not one of the show's prouder moments -- turns out to be David's son. Eighteen months into the show's run, Barbara Hall had noted, "It was very important for me to do a full year about a woman that really didn't have to do very much with sex or relationships, because I felt that was where everybody goes with women. I wanted to keep it about women who have important jobs and relationships outside of men." But as Season 5 developed, it turned out to be very much about three generations of Gray women infatuated with men. It's no great industry secret that Brenneman, a co-producer who was very much hands on, was displeased with Season 5; come season's end, most of the writing staff, including the two showrunners, were let go. And given what Season 5 had become (not a bad show, just not the distinctive one you'd come to love), you understand why. And when you see how the series snaps back into place a third of the way into Season 6, the house-cleaning seems doubly vindicated.

But it takes a while for the new crew to right the ship. One of the dangers of a mostly new writing staff -- and in this case, a new showrunner too, Richard Kramer, who has no history with the show -- is that often you can see the growing pains. For the first few episodes of Season 6, the characters seem vaguely unfamiliar, as if the writers are still learning their voices. The third episode -- credited to Constance Burge, a writer I quite like -- may well be the series' nadir. The personal story-lines feel forced and precious (Amy and David are pretty much reduced to arguing the pros and cons of his new boat); Maxine's DCF case is lightweight; and worst of all, Amy's court case is ludicrous. A twelve-year-old boy has pleaded guilty to felony murder, in the fatal shooting of a grocery clerk; during a break in the sentencing hearing, Amy spots his family from the lunchroom, surmises from the body language that it's really the boy's older brother who committed the crime, and sets a trap for him, coercing a confession. Amy is known for her "creative sentencing," for caring so much about the children who pass through her courtroom that rather than lock them up, she searches for effective means of rehabilitation. When it's done properly, both the testimony and the sentences can be illuminating and frequently moving. Here Judge Gray comes off like Columbo, playing cat and mouse with the guilty. In some ways, the start of Season 6 compounds the issues that plagued Season 5; neither the personal nor procedural story-lines seem to be landing, and you feel the new team flailing for solutions.

The changing of the writing guard is clearly designed to get the focus back on the Gray family, after a season of focusing on the men in Amy and Maxine's lives. (Dan Futterman, an audience favorite who played Amy's younger brother Vincent, was returning to the show for the first time since early in Season 3. With Peter newly separated from his wife, that meant five Grays living under one roof.) When the season starts, the Grays are definitely front-and-center; the show just presents them in the worst possible light. Vincent stumbles around week after week: meeting with a publisher, only to disclose he's barely written any of the book for which he's received an advance; hitting up Peter for money to pay back the advance; and finally, unloading his troubles on a DCF juvenile he's been hired to oversee.

Vincent seems aimless but harmless. His sister and mother don't get off so easy. Throughout Season 5, Amy had pined after David, who was mourning the murder of his wife and obsessed with bringing her killer to justice. That changes instantly in the first episode of Season 6, in which the killer is captured and dies in prison. David is finally available, and ready to commit to Amy -- but now Amy is ambivalent. It's a side of Amy Gray that had been explored consistently throughout the series -- assured as she was in the courtroom, she was indecisive in her personal life, often sabotaging the very things that were working best. But here it's taken to a troubling extreme: after moping after David for an entire season, she freezes him out the moment he's free. Amy is at her most self-absorbed during the first string of episodes: at one point, she agrees to a dinner date with David, then stands him up to hang out with her court services officer Bruce. The camera focuses in on her at the end of the episode (after David has called her out on her behavior, and walked away in disgust), as if to say, "Poor Amy: once again, messing things up, despite her best efforts." But forget "best efforts," she's putting in no effort. The first six episodes seems determined to make you hate her.

But not as much as you hate Maxine. At her worst Maxine could be pigheaded and self-righteous. But you knew she cared deeply about the children whose welfare depended upon her, and that redeemed her. The top of Season 6 decides to bring her most unpleasant qualities to the fore. She becomes obsessed with finding a child who's been lost in the system, and as the search becomes futile, she insults the very people who could help her, shuts herself off from her family (she takes up residence for a while in a seedy hotel, for reasons that are never made clear), and ultimately slaps an unruly foster child, getting herself arrested for battery. It all culminates in a heart attack -- and although the notion of Maxine's headstrong behavior bringing on a health crisis is a valid one, the series overlooks that getting her there means suffering through Maxine at her worst, all in search of a missing child who means nothing to the viewer.

Tied to Maxine's health crisis is a mystery to be solved. It presents itself early in the season, when Amy's daughter Lauren has to do a report on her grandmother, and the family realizes they know little about Maxine's childhood, particularly the death of her mother when she was 11. And that gets addressed in the episode in which Maxine is rushed to the hospital, where, under sedation, she envisions and chats with her late mother. (We learn that Maxine never speaks of her mother because she has no idea what her final days were like; she imagines a scenario that gives her closure.) The episode with Maxine in the hospital is entitled "Early Winter"; it's the seventh episode of Season 6, and it should be awful. It's one of those ideas (Maxine talking to her dead mother) that's going to have to be great in order to be good, and nothing about the season so far -- except for one assured episode written by Executive Producer Barry O'Brien -- has filled you with optimism. But it's brilliant. Episode 7 marks a turning point for Season 6, and it's hard to imagine the turnaround isn't in good part the result of a new showrunner taking the reins. (Kramer departs the series after four episodes, and Carol Barbee, a Supervising Producer in Season 5 and Executive Producer early in Season 6, is promoted. She's one of the two writing producers retained from Season 5, the other being the reliable O'Brien.) Episode 7 gathers the Gray children at their mother's hospital bedside, and it's the first time in the season that the family dynamic rings true. Early episodes that season had featured moments like Peter and Vincent playing keep-away with Amy's tapioca; we were supposed to be charmed and think, "They're just like any other family," but they felt too much like any other family. In "Early Winter," the interactions feel specific to the Grays.

And so many other good things happen in "Early Winter." As Peter and his estranged wife Gillian look through Maxine's things, to decide what to bring her in the hospital, they reminisce gently and candidly about their own lives, and you feel them take tentative steps towards reconnecting. Amy gets a new clerk named Holbrook, and it's Jim Parsons; the way he's introduced is pure gold, as is the way he comes to Amy's aid during their first case together. And Maxine's bedside conversations with her mother are lovely. There's no attempt to do anything "otherworldly" -- she doesn't appear in a blurry vision. She's just there, in a dream, and she and Maxine relive what it was like when she too was rushed to the hospital, the last time Maxine saw her. And the dialogue is rich, funny and nuanced. It's the first Judging Amy episode by writers Matthew Federman and Stephen Scaia (it's actually their first TV credit); they would ultimately go on to become two of the best scripters in the business, and this is an awesome debut. (Watching in 2004, I made note of their names, as a team to watch. I've never stopped watching.)

Stephen Scaia was kind enough to speak with me while I was preparing this essay. He and Federman were hired by Richard Kramer; he recalls, "He had read a spec script of ours and thought we had an interesting voice... That was curious for us, as before Judging Amy all we'd written were spec episodes of West Wing and Alias, as well as a original one-hour adventure drama. Our brand was dubbed 'aggressively male,' so we were as surprised as our reps that we got an offer to join the staff. But once we arrived, we saw that Richard had hired a lot of new (and truly talented) young writers, like K.J. Steinberg and Matthew Lieberman." Scaia notes that by bringing new voices to the show, Kramer was "very excited to mix things up and, if memory serves, Amy Brenneman was excited to shake up the status quo as well." But he confirms my own suspicions that "the true magic happened when Carol was promoted and became showrunner," and agrees that "Early Winter" is when the season finds its footing: "I do feel like that right around there -- specifically at the introduction of 'Holbrook' (played by the then-unknown but still super-talented Jim Parsons) -- was just about when things did shift creatively."

Shortly after taking over as showrunner, Barbee alerted the press that after a season focused on personal stories, "We're going back to a case-driven model. The show works best with sharp, strong cases." The new approach reinvigorates the show; all the promise seen in "Early Winter" seems instantly fulfilled. Over the following two episodes (the start of the season's second block), the show makes several canny moves: disposing of David, who takes his boat and sails away, and giving Vincent a job at an outreach office for teenaged runaways, with a supervisor played by the winning Jennifer Esposito. Meanwhile, Maxine suffers a second heart attack (a near-fatal one) that forces her to rethink her lifestyle and approach, while Amy takes a personal interest in a young gang member, Graciela Reyes, resurrected from the season's second episode. (Tara Correa-McMullen, the young actress who played Graciela, was -- as Scaia beautifully describes her -- "tough, sympathetic and authentic all at the same time." The writers wisely saw her potential and built her a story-line; it paid dividends all the way to season's end.) With these pieces in place, we move into one of the best runs in all of Judging Amy. It's a short arc -- only five episodes -- but it's stunning. In fact, it's flawless.

At the beginning of the season's tenth episode, O'Brien's "The Long Run," Amy learns she's pregnant. Amy Brenneman was pregnant too at the time, but Brenneman revealed in an interview that it's a story-line she'd been contemplating for the better part of a year. And it transforms the show. As Amy welcomes all that comes with impending motherhood -- a marriage proposal from (a returning) David; picking out baby names with her daughter Lauren; putting down an offer on her dream house -- Maxine adopts a new, healthier lifestyle, and Vincent dials back the self-pity as he commits to making a difference at the outreach center. Putting Vincent on the streets gives the show three strong "cases" each week -- a lot of them very dark -- and balancing that is the fact that all three characters are in good places emotionally, at their most decisive and responsible. Their ability to shoulder even the most difficult challenges with grace proves exhilarating.

Amy, Maxine and Vincent dominate Season 6, and the tight focus is bracing. Barbara Hall had always embraced a larger canvas; Season 6 tightens the story-telling -- it refuses to be democratic in its use of the cast, and it's all the better for it. It doesn't try to give Bruce his own plotline; it lets us see him through his interactions with Amy, and watch their mutual affection dwindle as he comes to question her investment in Graciela. It doesn't give Amy's (former) clerk Donna her own story, other than letting her pass the bar, become a court-appointed minor counsel, and every three or four weeks, turn up in Amy's courtroom. (A scene late in the season, where she blasts Amy for refusing to apologize to the State's Attorney's Office, is sensational -- but it's a moment that, again, stems from her evolving relationship with Amy.) And Peter and Gillian are nicely compartmentalized: the moments that we see them slowly reconcile are better for not popping up weekly. That approach reaches its climax in the middle spate of episodes: it's about three people working in child services, and how their experiences inform their personal lives -- and vice versa. Sometimes when you create characters, you love them so much, you want to focus on them even if they're peripheral. (And sometimes the supporting players themselves demand more airtime. Richard T. Jones, who played Bruce, notoriously filed a lawsuit against the show in Season 2, demanding more time off or more prominent story-lines.) My only complaint about Barbara Hall's four years on Judging Amy is that they're filled with subplots I don't particularly care for. (Amy's cousin Kyle, added in Season 3, often seemed a distraction, no matter how convincingly Kevin Rahm played him.) Season 6 wields the scalpel -- it trims the fat -- easily and effectively. (Scaia, graciously: "That's all Carol and the other senior writers. They knew exactly how to simplify the show to what made it work.")

At its best, Judging Amy was careful not to overstate the similarities between the cases that came through Amy's courtroom and events in her own life; it served them up gently, for her and us to reflect on. With Amy newly pregnant, the courtroom offers up daily reminders of the challenges of being a good parent, of all that can go wrong when bringing a child into the world -- but through it all, Amy's optimism never flags. Neither does Maxine's; in light of her recent heart attacks, she's embraced yoga and power walking, a far cry from the woman who was chowing down fried foods and guzzling hard liquor just a few episodes earlier. She remains as outspoken as ever, but there's a lightness now: a self-awareness that's unexpected. When Amy and David are searching for a new home, Amy shares her childhood dream of living in the McGuinn house up the street, where she would go during her worst days growing up, when her father was ill. She asks Maxine if she can relate:

Amy: Like when you and Dad first got married: didn't you have your version of the dream house?
Maxine: We found the perfect place. Right away. It was meant to be. I knew we could stay there forever.
Amy: See, that! I want that!
Maxine: We didn't get that house. So your father and I took this one. We peeled off the horrid wallpaper and polished the floors. Replaced the ancient appliances. Because that's what people did in those days. We worked. We fixed things. We made them our own.

Because that's what Maxine does: she lectures; she imposes her judgments on others. But this new Maxine also knows when she's gone too far, and when Amy, unwilling to let the subject go, asks, "Do you think the McGuinns were as happy as they seemed?", Maxine chooses her words carefully, even though there's no good answer: "Uh.. She cheated. He drank. They stayed together for the sake for the children." But eager to give her daughter some semblance of the answer she wants, she adds with assurance, "Nice house, though."

Amy and Maxine's positive attitude proves infectious. Amy is meeting Graciela weekly in her chambers, as substitute for a shuttered anti-gang program (her "creative sentencing" in action); she asks her if she has any dreams, and when Graciela clams up, Amy shares her own: "My dream is to have a home where everybody I love could grow up and grow old: happy, healthy and safe." When Graciela rejects it ("That's a stupid dream"), Amy retorts, without embarrassment or apology, "Well, that's all I got. How about you?" And Graciela flashes a momentary smile as she sheepishly admits, "I guess the same thing."

Meanwhile, Vincent is engaged in a sort of urban romantic comedy, one that plays to Dan Futterman's puppy-dog charm. Here's Vincent and his supervisor Crystal (in executive story editor Christopher Ambrose's "You Don't Know Me") advising a young girl how to survive on her own, never realizing they're turning into a Thirties screwball couple:

Crystal: Everyone wants something from you -- even other kids -- so don't talk to anybody on the streets. Are you warm enough?
Vincent: Crystal's always cold, so she thinks everyone else is.
Crystal: This one's a writer. He observes.
Vincent: Yah, look who's talking. You move the stapler on her desk, she notices. She guards her stuff like it's gold.
Crystal: The way you take care of your hair -- he checks it, like, every half an hour.
Vincent: Who's observing who?
Girl: My grandparents used to tease each other like you guys. How long have you been married?
Crystal & Vincent (simultaneously): We're not married.

Judging Amy Season 6 finds its principals, briefly, radiating hopefulness -- but by the end of the second block, the real world intervenes. A personal tragedy sends Crystal into a downward spiral, forcing Vincent to pick up the pieces. Maxine gets so comfortable with Ignacio that she strays beyond her comfort zone. And Amy is dealt the cruelest blow. On a day that starts normally, with morning sickness (Donna implores her to drink more milk, as she herself had when she was pregnant a few seasons earlier), Amy starts to spot. The script underplays it:

Amy: My doctor says it's totally normal.
Donna: Yeah. It's really no big deal. Happened to me a couple times. OK, here's what you do. Feet at a 55-degree angle, deep breathing...
Amy: Donna, if I told you that I developed the ability to speak Portuguese while I'm pregnant, would you tell me that happened to you, too?
Donna: Too helpful?
Amy: Little bit.
Donna: Dialing it back.
Amy: Thank you.

The court case that day involves a young girl who took her father's car out for a joy ride, and killed her best friend in the process. Her shock and guilt, a psychiatrist warns, has put her on a path to suicide. Just as Amy finishes hearing the facts, she lurches from pain, rushes out into the hallway, and tells Donna to call her doctor. In the following scene, the doctor informs her, upon examination, that the fetus is no longer viable. We fade on Amy's stunned face, her shock mirroring our own. (Knowing Amy Brenneman was pregnant in real life, we presumed that's why they'd written in a pregnancy for Amy Gray -- and that, obviously, she'd carry it to term.)

When we see her next, it's the following morning -- her 40th birthday -- and she's determined to put the miscarriage behind her and go to work. In court, she tries to keep it together as she delivers her sentence.

Amy: At the time of this accident, Shelly Cecil was a typical 13-year-old girl: hanging out with friends, being a teenager. And sometimes, teenagers do stupid things. When I was her age, my best friend and I decided to hide in a train tunnel with our backs against the wall to feel the rush of the train as it went by -- and if either one of us had moved an inch, or been swept along by the train, we would have died. We just...didn't. I'm not condoning what Shelly did. It was irresponsible, and she was warned -- and she learned how quickly things can go wrong.

Her own words touch a nerve. She looks down, rubs her forehead. Donna looks on, concerned. Amy recovers: "I'm recommending Shelly be sent to a residential facility for one year, where she will receive treatment, and then be placed on probation for three years, during which time she will continue therapy on an outgoing basis. I'm also mandating family therapy." She addresses Shelly and the mother of the girl she killed: "Shelly, you and Mrs. Thompson have a great deal in common. You both have suffered a tre-- " The words catch in her throat. She inhales quickly and looks down again: hiding her countenance, fighting to regain her composure. She does her best to continue: "You both have suffered a tremendous loss. And I understand.. that right now.. it may seem... as if you will... always feel this empty or..." She tries to wrap it up quickly: "You know, it's just a terrible time. We have to get through it."

Shelly asks, "How?": a question so reasonable yet so enormous, Amy can only brush it aside with a sad laugh: "I don't know." She exits the courtroom without explanation, reaches her car, and unwilling to head home (her family is throwing her a birthday party), drives an hour to the beach. As she sits on a log, the wind whipping against her face, a stranger, Jerry Lambert, spots her and strikes up a conversation. She cuts him off, but he presses: "Feeling a little down? Break up with your boyfriend -- I hope? Joke. Sorry. Did you?" She gets up and starts to walk away, as the camera catches them in a long tracking shot.

Amy: Fine, I'll leave.
Jerry: No, come on now, we're just getting to know each other.
Amy: Don't follow me.
Jerry: Don't get mad with me. Come on, let's start over. I'm Jerry.
Amy: Leave me alone, Jerry.
Jerry: Whoa, somebody's in a mood.
Amy: Does this work on anybody?
Jerry: What?
Amy: Badgering women who clearly don't want to talk to you. Why would you do that?
Jerry: I have a weakness for beautiful women.
Amy: Aw, dear God..
Jerry: I have a feeling about us.
Amy: No, no, you don't. No feeling. I did not come here to talk to you. We are not fated by the universe to meet. You are intruding. You are not welcome in my presence. Is that clear enough?

And when Jerry makes light ("You know, this is the story we'll tell our grandchildren"), Amy turns on him, practically snarling, "I had a miscarriage yesterday. OK? Twenty-four hours ago I was pregnant. You still hot for me? I turned 40 today. Does that turn you on?" And finally, as if offering an angry summation: "You are a moron of epic proportions. You leave me alone."

She makes her way to one of those seaside bars that litter the New England coast, with cheap fishnets and crude anchors everywhere. She breaks down in the bathroom, heaving and sobbing, then drifts to the bar, where she orders a draft beer. And Jerry shows up, seating himself just a few stools away:

Amy: Oh, you got to be kidding me.
Jerry: I'm sorry, I just wanted to apologize. That guy out there on the beach -- that's not me.
Amy: He looked a lot like you.
Jerry: Well, he's not. That guy, I hate that guy -- I roomed with that guy in college. I never liked him. So please, forgive me if I came on too strong. I didn't realize how much pain you're in, and I'm sorry.
Amy: Fine. Apology accepted.

He orders what she's having, but as she stares down at her drink, he can't help himself:

Jerry: So what happened, some kind of accident or something?
Amy: What?
Jerry: The baby, I mean. That must be rough.
Amy: You're still doing it. I can't believe you're still doing it.
Jerry: What?
Amy: Bothering me.
Jerry: Look, I'm a nice person, OK? I mean, I know it didn't seem like it out there, but I am. And you've been crying. I don't know, maybe you want to talk.

And Amy bursts out laughing.

Amy: Yeah, Jerry, that's just what I want to do. Talk to you about my miscarriage: I think that's a great idea. Because I can't think of anyone more qualified to listen to the deepest, saddest details of my life than some guy off the beach that I just met.
Jerry: OK, I get the joke.
Amy: Really? Because everything else I've said has just flown over your head.

He resolves to shut up, and we cut away to a sweet scene between Lauren and Maxine, in which Lauren has prepared what she'll later describe as "the worst birthday cake ever" (for one thing, she's spelled "birthday" with an "o"). And when we cut back to the seaside bar, Amy and Jerry are still seated, except now the camera is hitting them from behind, creating greater peace and parity. No longer crouching over her drink, Amy's leaning back. The tone is quieter.

Jerry: I'm sorry, but when you were yelling at me, did you say this is your birthday?
Amy: Yup. I'm 40.
Jerry: Wow. What's that like?
Amy: It's a lot like sitting in a bar with you, Jerry.
Jerry: It sneaks up on you, doesn't it? I had a plan. I was supposed to be VP of Acquisition by the time I was 35. I'm 38, and I'm on the bubble. The market just turned. My parents are gone. My friends are scattered and miserable. I'm not married. No kids. It wasn't supposed to be like this... It was not supposed to be like to be this.

As the waves roll in, Amy responds with a sigh that evokes both sadness and sympathy: "Oh, Jerry..." Jerry's quick to apologize: "Listen to me, I'm talking your ear off. You're the one sitting in a bar with a stranger on your 40th birthday." Amy recovers: "Yah, right. What am I doing? I've got people waiting." And that's not what Jerry expected; he thought he'd found a kindred spirit. His face darts with surprise, his voice quivering: "You got people?" Amy gently nods, as Jerry, shaken, musters a smile: "You should go be with those people." And Amy sees the light: "Yeah. Yeah, right." She stands and assures him, "Drinks are on me. Thanks." And as she leaves, she turns to quietly reassure him, "It was really nice talking to you."

She makes her way home and spies, through the front door, her friends and family in their party hats. The experience has helped put things in perspective. But as always on Judging Amy, nothing's as straightforward as it seems; with a shudder, Amy remembers:

Amy: Oh God, we put an offer on the McGuinn place.
Maxine: Is that a bad thing? I thought you said you always dreamed of living in that house.
Amy: I know, I know, but --
Maxine: But what?
Amy: I don't know. I guess I'm awake now.

The episode is called "Happy Borthday," it's a Carol Barbee script, and make no mistake: it's Amy Brenneman's best work on the show. It's an episode unlike any other, yet it's the essence of what Judging Amy is about. It's not a case of "here's someone whose life is so bad, it makes Amy's look good"; on the contrary, it insists that Amy's grief is no less valid than Jerry Lambert's (or Shelly Cecil's, for that matter). The people who pass through Amy's courtroom lead far less fortunate lives, but that doesn't make Amy's pain any less real. It doesn't make her choices any more trivial, or her accomplishments any less admirable. And likewise, the victims and defendants over whom she presides are never reduced to mere statistics; their troubles are never minimized or marginalized. (The writers -- and Amy herself -- see to that.) Judging Amy grants everyone equal dignity: the parents anxious to abandon their adopted child and the mother unable to love the son who got sick; the boy who stabbed his teacher and the girl who killed her best friend; the gang girl looking to go straight and the struggling businessman on the beach.

The cases that Amy tries in her courtroom hit so close to home that she's never truly free of them. And that's not necessarily a bad thing. A year into the series' run, Barbara Hall was asked how Amy's volatile relationship with her mother would change, now that they had been living together for a while. "I think it's going where I think all of our relationships with our parents go," she responded, "which is basically nowhere." Judging Amy acknowledges that sometimes we're affected more by encounters with strangers than by those we're closest to. Their stories change us; our actions impact them. There's a wonderful scene in the series' final episode, when Donna gathers some of the defendants who've appeared before Amy over the past six years, so they can tell her what a difference she's made in their lives. What's unstated, but understood, is the difference they've made in hers. "Happy Borthday" reminds us that our lives are inseparable from the people with whom we interact, even if those interactions are fleeting. Barbee simply takes the drama out of the courtroom, and plants it in the sand: by the ocean, that great equalizer. She makes it fresh -- and after six years, that's remarkable.

"Happy Borthday" reasserts the very premise of Judging Amy -- and then the final block of the season blows it to bits. It asks "What if our interactions with others are compromised? What if we can no longer do our job with conviction or objectivity?"

At the start of the season's final block, David is written off (for the second -- and final -- time). When David previously sailed away, in episode 8, it seemed motivated only by Amy's indecisiveness. Here, they've both suffered an enormous loss, and Amy in particular needs time to grieve. Amy's infatuation with David comes on so strong in Season 5 that you can't imagine the writers will find a convincing way to write him off -- but they do. The fallout from the miscarriage is handled so persuasively that you never see it as "merely" a plot device to get rid of David; on the contrary, it becomes a key component of what moves Amy forward: a personal tragedy that launches her on a professional trajectory. In the same episode in which David is written out, Graciela, having completed her sessions with Amy (and in one of most charming moments of the season, been rewarded with a surprise party), finds herself under arrest when she's in the wrong place at the wrong time -- specifically, in the backseat of a car when her cousin, in the front, shoots someone. As the state's attorney's office presses for Graciela to be tried as an adult, Amy is approached by someone who wants her to run for senator, to address the ways the juvenile justice system is being dismantled -- and the rest of the season sees Amy get slowly politicized. Scaia recalls that "Carol was looking for something specific to bring the show in for a landing. A lot of different ideas were discussed, and Matt and I, having just come from The West Wing (as assistants), were still marinating in politics, and suggested a version of Amy's arc that goes from judge to politician -- based on the reaction of what happens to Graciela." It's a bold choice for the series, but it feels utterly right.

Four years earlier, Amy Brenneman had told the press, "I have great faith in individuals, [but] I'm not so sure about the system. The juvenile justice system is changing and not for the better. When it was started 100 years ago, the idea was juveniles should be treated separately from adults. The underlying philosophy was: We as a society are responsible for any of the things a child might do. That's really being thrown out the window." Brenneman's concerns become her character's in the final spate of episodes, as Amy starts to question the changing face of the juvenile justice system (as well as her own effectiveness and impartiality), which Scaia reports are precisely the issues that were being hashed out at the time in the writers' room -- in particular, "Why is she still a judge?" And to its great credit, the political story-line, a brave turning point for the series, flows clearly and resolutely from recent events in Amy's life. When Bruce objects to the lengths she's going to see that Graciela gets tried as a juvenile, she insists, "She just needs someone to get up there and fight for her, care about her... love her," and he responds, "I just don't want to see you lose –- again." The loss of her unborn child and her quest to save Graciela become unmistakably intertwined. As Scaia puts it, Amy's evolution plays like "a natural character progression from enforcer of law to the one who helps create better ones." Although the series ends before the arc truly gets underway, the ways in which it's teased, including Amy's appearance before the U.S. Senate, to offer insight on a pending bill that would allow 13-year-olds to be tried and sentenced as adults, are extraordinary satisfying.

The final block isn't quite as solid as the second. There are some story-telling oddities that seem to stem from scheduling issues, and the cases are a bit less varied. (Maxine has two HIV-related cases over three episodes, and both play more like PSA's than good drama.) But through it all, the principals continue their awkward steps toward self-fulfillment. Vincent finds a way to reignite his passion for writing. Maxine opens herself up to the possibility of new relationships. Remarkably, the season seems to reflect back on its own inglorious beginnings, when the three leads were floundering so. It gently reminds us that there were no easy solutions, no fast fixes, to get these three back on track. They had to do it in their own way, in their own time.

"What was so great for us who joined in Season 6," Scaia notes, "was the privilege to ask why the relationships were the way they were and start the discussions in the room as to whether they were really working or not." The final season of Judging Amy takes a half-dozen episodes to get its bearings, but once the new writing team settles in, they show an impressive understanding of the characters: their capacity to self-destruct, but more critically, their ability to self-correct. Without compromising the integrity of Barbara Hall's original vision, without undermining the sometimes maddening complexity of her creations, they manage to leave the characters -- just briefly -- at their best, as if the past six years truly counted for something. As if acknowledging -- without the contrivance of "happy endings" -- that our investment in their lives was time well spent. Stephen Scaia recalls that, for him, "Judging Amy was a fantastic first writing job in Hollywood. Interesting, well-run, full of kind and intelligent people." For the audience, it's a tremendous, audacious final season, and a splendid way of saying goodbye.

Do you enjoy these in-depth looks at hit shows? If so, check out my write-ups of Cold Case Season 4, Gilmore Girls Season 7 (and the subsequent Netflix miniseries), and countless essays devoted to seasons of the great nighttime soap Knots Landing, starting here. I also look back at Murder, She Wrote and pick out The 10 Best "Murder She Wrote" Mysteries -- not (necessarily) my top episodes, but the best whodunnits. Or if you have a preference for sitcoms, I delve into Rhoda Season 3, WKRP in Cincinnati Season 4 and Bewitched Season 2, pen an appreciation of the underrated Mike & Molly, and offer up some thoughts as to why The New Adventures of Old Christine took such a tumble in quality over its five seasons.


  1. You make me sorry I never watched it! Actually, I think I caught two or three episodes at various times, though I can't now remember which ones. And Season 1 seems to be the only one available on DVD....


    1. It truly is a remarkable, underrated series, Jon, and one of those shows of which I never tire. I have no idea why it hasn't been released on DVD; there are obviously some music clearance issues, but no more, I imagine, than on most shows. TNT aired it in syndication for quite a while -- I have to imagine it did well for them. Then UP-TV picked it up. Hopefully another network will get it into a syndication cycle soon. Appreciate your reading, Jon, and commenting!

  2. Just loving the show its fantastic