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'Bad Judge' lives up to its name in quality, not in spirit

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Bad Judge
John Fleenor/NBC

The pilot to Bad Judge feels off. That’s not unexpected for a show that’s already had two showrunners, a heavily revised first episode, and major cast alterations before the pilot has even premiered. Out of all of the behind-the-scenes calamity, though, comes a pilot that looks more like Frankenstein’s Monster than a half-hour comedy. It’s an episode that stitches together parts of completely different concepts in the hopes of making something cohesive, but instead delivers an episode nothing short of erratic.

In the patchwork of a pilot, Bad Judge is missing just about every key ingredient—coherent plotting, concrete characterization, and, most importantly, actual jokes.

Judge wants to have its justice and serve it, too: Judge Rebecca Wright (Kate Walsh) is a mess—she sleeps with a witness, appears in court with a hangover, and shows more skin than one would expect from a judge. But, strangely enough, the pilot shows Rebecca has a secret heart of gold, and is actually not too bad at her job—she demonstrates a stern, no-nonsense decorum in her court room. This dichotomy creates a pilot at odds with itself, hinting at the good version of this show viewers will likely never get.

In the courtroom, Rebecca is assisted by her bailiff, Tedward (Tone Bell), and badgered by her superior, Judge Hernandez (Miguel Sandoval), to spend her time focusing on her cases and not assisting the relatives of those she’s convicted.

Hernandez finds this behavior infuriating because… well, there’s no express reason, as she seems to preside over all of her cases just fine. He should be far more concerned about her ongoing hookups with psychologist Gary (Ryan Hansen in a role similar to Dick Casablancas but sapped of all his hilarity). Gary is a witness at a case involving councilor Tom Barlow (John Ducey).

Rebecca spends her time not in court helping Robby Shoemaker (Theodore Barnes), who is stuck in a foster home after Rebecca put away his mother. He’s being bullied at his group home and continues to get in trouble at school.

The pilot’s problems begin with the plotting, though by no means end there. The legal case is relegated to just a couple of scenes. (It’s also peculiar that Gary and Tom seem to be involved in every case at this court, again making for a claustrophobic world building.) Chris Parnell sneaks in a few funny lines as a defendant, but otherwise Rebecca’s professional career is handled as meagerly and poorly as her personal life.

Outside of court, Rebecca assists Robby twice in quick succession, through sequences that play out in virtually identical fashion. She gets a call, goes to Robby’s school, drives him back to his foster home, and convinces him to make the best of the situation. Then she does it all over again after some quick, awkward flirting with Gary.

The episode’s contrived ending attempts to gather the characters together as if they’ve learned something. They’re celebrating Rebecca’s speech at her alma mater, which also happens to be Hernandez and Tom’s former stomping grounds. This plot point, however, only comes up halfway through the episode, robbing it of any actual resonance.

In the mishmash of a narrative, Judge frustratingly never lands on a specific characterization for Rebecca. At times, the “bad” in the title seems justified, but the entire Robby plot softens any attempt to present her as a problem child. Rather than creating a believable asshole who’s good at her job, Bad Judge establishes an erratic woman whose moral compass comes and goes.

Above it all, Bad Judge just forgets to be funny. Walsh has proven she’s a capably funny actress, as her stint in Fargo most recently demonstrated, and a few of the minor characters like Tedward hold promise. But the pilot makes poor use of its cast while neutering its main character to neither be good or bad in any interesting way. Perhaps that’s a more unkind fate than some of the fall’s worst comedies will endure—Bad Judge isn’t good, but it’s also wholly unmemorable.

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