Once upon a time, there was The People’s Court, the show in which ordinary citizens agreed to have small-claims cases adjudicated on TV in exchange for some tiny measure of fame. While The People’s Court was a pop-culture institution, it went off the air in 1993 after 12 seasons, and it took another, much more popular courtroom reality show to bring it back, along with a flood of personality-based judge shows.
That show is Judge Judy, with the no-nonsense, catchphrase-spouting Judy Sheindlin presiding over a courtroom of generally hapless rubes suing each other over mostly petty affairs. Judge Judy has been so successful since premiering in 1996 that it’s spawned numerous imitators; there are so many of these shows now that the genre received its own category at the Daytime Emmys this year.
None of Judy’s followers have achieved anything approaching her success, but that doesn’t stop new contenders from continuing to give it a go. There are three new judge shows premiering in syndication this season, all of them hosted by no-nonsense women, all of them following the well-worn format with little deviation. The stars of these shows have morphed from relatively impartial observers and fact-finders into scolds and dubious moral authorities (one short-lived Judge Judy knock-off was even called Moral Court), the audience appeal seeming to be in how extensively the judge can berate the people appearing in the courtroom.
Judge Karen (KVMY Channel 12, weekdays, 2 and 2:30 p.m.; BET, weekdays, 11 a.m.) wears red judicial robes rather than black ones, but that sartorial deviation is about all that sets her apart. She takes no guff from the plaintiffs and defendants she judges, and seems to take particular pleasure in asserting their incompetence. There’s rarely the sense from these shows that anyone is truly seeking justice, and while it’s only natural for the litigants to act selfishly, it’d be nice to see the judge not do the same. Judge Karen, however, is at least as much of a glory hound as anyone passing through her courtroom.
Slightly more tolerable is the star of Family Court with Judge Penny (KVVU Channel 5, weekdays, 1:30 p.m.). “It’s not only about verdicts; it’s about solutions,” Judge Penny asserts in the show’s opening, and the structure of Family Court is more like an episode of Maury or Dr. Phil than a real court hearing. Judge Penny deals with issues that are more familial than legal, although she does issue a verdict and award damages like other TV judges do. Her bug-eyed look, possibly the result of too much plastic surgery, is a bit disconcerting, but her moralizing is at least a little gentler than Judge Karen’s, and more appropriate within the show’s format.
More hard-nosed but also a little more substantial is Judge Jeanine Pirro (KVCW Channel 6, weekdays, 3 p.m.), a former New York state Attorney General candidate and Fox News contributor. Pirro uses her experience as a judge and a District Attorney to take on slightly more serious cases, sometimes involving violence, and although she’s just as condescending and moralistic as any of her counterparts, she does seem to be lecturing on subjects that actually deserve to be preached about. With her Noo Yawk accent and attention to legal detail, she actually comes off like someone who could be sitting on a bench in a real courtroom.
Like all of the jurists dispensing TV justice, these three newcomers offer viewers a chance to feel morally superior to the saps in the studio, and in that sense they’re little better than the likes of Jerry Springer. Just because there are the trappings of law and order doesn’t mean that the proceedings are any less arrogant and crass.