I'm the boss, applesauce!" declares Judge Judy-and she's right. Ratings are out, and for the first time, Judge Judy (Dr. Laura in a black robe) has beaten out both Jerry Springer and Oprah. She attracts nearly 9 million viewers a day with her syndicated moralizing. And her popularity has led to a crowd of court shows, with even ex-New York City mayor Ed Koch dispensing justice on TV.
But are the court shows any better than the talk shows? The jury is still out.
To her credit, Judge Judy (retired New York City family court judge Judy Sheindlin) does offer something the talk shows don't: a moral perspective.
"Seven dollars and 49 cents is an outrage," Judge Judy barked at a defendant who had paid that amount as the most recent month's child support. "You can't just have children if you can't pay for them. What do you think this is? Are we supposed to pay for your kids? Listen, right is right, wrong is wrong. I'm sorry."
While that's refreshing-particularly among daytime programs, which seem to specialize in bed-hopping and bar-fighting-Judge Judy can't be called edifying. She deals with paltry cases with pathetic litigants. Here are a couple of typical cases:
A 31-year-old man sued his ex-girlfriend, 29, over a $500 car loan. He said she got him fired from his job. She countersued, alleging harassment. Most of the 30-minute program was the man telling Judge Judy what a tramp the woman was, and the woman countering with what a psycho the man was.
In another case, two sisters battled over a $3,000 car loan one made to the other. The defendant's argument was, essentially, that she was poor, while her sister was rich. Oh, and everyone else in the family called the rich sister "Hitler."
Despite the scary "shhushhh!" Judge Judy issues during each episode, the shows abound in arguments and name-calling-and this is by design. Larry Lyttle, president of Big Ticket Television, which produces the program, admits he picks cases in which the people have a history together, "in order to fire up more passion."
But the combatants are minor characters, serving as a vehicle for Judge Judy's pronouncements, which have included such gems as, "You are one lying sucker," "Beauty fades, dumb is forever," and "You, sir, do not have character, you are a character!"
Predictably, Judge Judy's success has spawned a resurgence in courtroom television programs. Her competition now includes Judges Mills Lane and Joe Brown, and will soon include her own husband: Mr. Judge Judy, Manhattan Supreme Court Judge Jerry Sheindlin, will take over Ed Koch's gavel on the revived program that invented the genre, The People's Court.
Judge Mills Lane is best known as the fight referee who caught Mike Tyson's ear-biting. But he's also a real-live judge, having served in Reno, Nev., as a state district judge. He sees his role now as an educational one-kinda. "People seem to like to sit and watch conflict," says Judge Lane. "You can have fun along the way, and actually deal with the substance of the law."
Judge Joe Brown, a black man who grew up in South Central Los Angeles, is the mildest of the bunch. He comes across as a kindly grandfather, offering advice along the way. But that doesn't mean his show is a step above the others. An episode last week, for example, aired the case of a young couple in a dispute over an engagement ring. The exes spent their time trashing each other. The 19-year-old boy stood by, mortified, while his former girlfriend detailed his suicide attempts and his temper tantrums. The girl, for her part, had to endure her infidelities being listed for public consumption. They used valuable air time arguing whether the board she hit him with was vinyl siding or actual lumber.
And let's not forget Judge Wapner-who started it all with The People's Court in the 1980s. He's back on the bench, but this time on the Animal Planet cable channel, in Judge Wapner's Animal Court. Even here, however, the genre is true to form. The cases (typically dog bites and vet bill disputes) are every bit as acrimonious as the cases on Judge Judy. And they share the hallway scene, the contrived confrontation after the judgment is rendered, outside the courtroom. Here's an actual transcript from an episode last week. The case was about whether Muffin, a fierce corgi, drew blood when she bit a neighbor:
"You're a liar."
"No, I'm not, you're the liar."
"That's a lie."
"What, you want to sue me for lying now, too? You're the liar."
"You're a liar."
Muffin, however, kept a dignified silence.
Media critic David Zurawik of the Baltimore Sun has correctly diagnosed the trouble with these shows: They have the same basic appeal as the trashy talk shows, even though they attempt to do it in a more formal setting.
"The people standing before the bench are pretty pathetic-pathetic enough that we can feel superior to them, just as we do the combatants on shows such as Jerry Springer."
Ironically, just as the courtroom shows seem to be increasing the sleaze factor (due to the growing competition), Jerry Springer is cleaning up his act-supposedly. Last month, Studios USA, which produces the Springer show, pulled several segments (including "Guess What, I'm Bisexual") for content reasons and substituted tamer episodes from the 1995-96 season.
The studio issued a statement, declaring, "We will produce and distribute a program that we feel is responsible-no violence, physical confrontation or profanity. That program will either be an original or a qualifying re-edited repeat. We will inform stations that we are not providing any Jerry Springer program if these standards cannot be met."
The reason the statement is so strong is that last year Jerry Springer made a similar commitment-and then failed to live up to it. By the time national attention drifted away from television violence, Springer guests were back to punches, perversion, and profanity.
The studio's statement is really a success story. Behind it is a crusade by a Roman Catholic priest, Michael Pfleger, of Chicago. He's been battling the Springer show for a couple of years now, and he's the reason Jerry Springer is scheduled to appear before the Chicago City Council on June 4. Mr. Pfleger prodded the council to ask why Jerry Springer's bouncers, all off-duty Chicago police officers, fail to arrest the combatants, when they are required to so do by law. And he led a group of Chicago citizens to Los Angeles to protest at the studio's front gates.
The persevering priest is wary, however, of the studio's true commitment. Will it really forgo revenues if Jerry Springer's ratings plummet?
In the meantime, is there any daytime television worth watching? Let's face it, soap opera ratings go up significantly during the summer-as do the numbers for game shows and talk shows. Which suggests kids are watching, whether the programs are quality or not. And the networks seem to know this. Watch for (better yet, don't watch for) NBC's summertime replacement soap, Passions, which will feature a Texas teenager in a sultry summer role.
Honestly, there are few oases in the vast daytime wasteland-but there's a cool breeze from Canada, a program gaining ground with younger viewers.
Hammy the Hamster, star of Once Upon a Hamster, is an institution among our neighbors to the north. His every move is reported-including the incident last summer when he escaped his cage while being pet-sat by a friend of the show's producer. He was found within a few hours, having enjoyed a romp through his caretaker's 17th-century farmhouse. Canada breathed a sigh of relief.
Once Upon a Hamster is a live-action show starring Hammy, his friends Martha (a mouse), Turtle, Hairbrush Henry (a hedgehog), Frog, and GP (a guinea pig who talks like W.C. Fields). They can be seen in the United States on the Trio cable channel (a joint venture that brings Canadian Broadcast Corporation programs to the United States) and in video stores.
The appeal of the program isn't complicated: The animals are cute; the adventures are lively without being scary; and the episodes attempt to impart light moral messages. But it goes beyond that-Hammy has developed a devoted following. A CD of Songs from the Riverbank (that's where Hammy and his friends live) will be released this month, and the Hammy website is one of Canada's most-accessed.
And, as mentioned above, Hammy's every move is watched. There was concern, for example, when one of Hammy's stunt doubles suffered heart trouble. It wasn't the stress, the Toronto Sun reported-it was the peanut butter. The show's producers, it turns out, use peanut butter spread strategically on the set to make sure Hammy goes where he's supposed to. Duff, the stunt double, who was rushed to a vet when he appeared sick during a shoot, was put on heart medication, and the whole cast was switched to Kraft Light peanut butter.
There have been other cast difficulties: Charlotte, the guinea pig who plays GP, spent one season biting crew members at every opportunity. She's calmed down now, having been paired with a rabbit companion. Their problems, however, have not been taken to Judge Wapner's Animal Court, nor do they anticipate an appearance on the Jerry Springer Show.