Want a quick way to distinguish A&E’s crime-‘n’-court series 100 Centre Street from the seemingly endless reruns of Law & Order aired on the same channel?
Centre Street star Alan Arkin has a foolproof one: ”We’re the only show that would feature a recurring plotline about Zen Buddhism and make one of the heroes of the show a lousy father!” he says cheerfully. As Judge Joe Rifkind, Arkin plays the neglectful dad to illegitimate daughter Rebecca (Amy Ryan), who’s reentered his life in the show’s second season. Rebecca’s interest in Eastern philosophy moves the guilt-ridden but well-meaning judge to explore the faith himself.
Centre Street is also the only TV show that would take Paula Devicq—frail, vulnerable Kirsten on Party of Five—cast her as a scrappy public defender, and make the move seem like a natural one. Other Centre Street distinctions? It’s the only show with a female black judge as a main character. She’s played by LaTanya Richardson, whose Judge Attallah ”Queenie” Sims’ view of the law is somewhere to the right of Robert Bork. ”You know they are not going to mess with me,” says Richardson of the suspects, perps, and hustling lawyers who come before her gavel-pounding character.
But then, 100 Centre Street is headed up by a director-producer-writer who’s made a career of going against the conventions of various genres. The series is overseen by feature-film great Sidney Lumet, whose credits include everything from 12 Angry Men (1957) to Dog Day Afternoon (1975) to Prince of the City (1981). Lumet, 77, hatched the idea for Centre Street years ago: ”When I was doing research for Prince of the City, I went to night court. I couldn’t believe the sheer drama of it: the juxtaposition of the banal, with everybody [acting] bored, yet the fate of people’s lives are being decided. I sat there and thought, My God, this is the most natural TV series I’ve ever seen. There are so many stories, with so many fixed, regular characters—the judges, and lawyers, and repeat offenders. And the cases were so varied.
”Then about three years ago, NBC asked me if there was anything I was interested in as a series. I told them this. They gave me a lot of money to write a pilot and they turned it down, thank God, because I knew I would have problems with this on a network. Not because of [bad] language, but because of the kinds of stories I wanted to do.” He pauses to laugh. ”A network was not going to be interested in letting me get Judge Rifkind involved in Zen Buddhism.”
So Lumet says he forgot about the project until he was approached by A&E programming pooh-bah Allen Sabinson. ”He said, ‘I read that pilot and can we do 13 of them?’ It was just that simple.”
Well, not really. Centre Street spent its first season looking for the right tone. It established a solid, idiosyncratic friendship between Arkin’s liberal Rifkind and Richardson’s law-‘n’-order maven Sims, but beyond Devicq’s intriguing Cynthia Bennington—a rich girl who decides to defend poor people and bad guys because she feels they deserve the fruits of the overloaded, understaffed judicial system—the series needed some spark. Centre Street has it this season, by introducing a new character, J.J. Jellinek (Third Watch‘s Bobby Cannavale), a charismatic smoothy of an assistant district attorney who just may be on the take. The series has also made a point of pursuing more provocative story lines—which brings us back to Buddhism again.