The two night courtroom miniseries Steve Martini’s The Judge, based on the bestselling novel by the author who’s awkwardly wedged into that title, amounts to a four hour version of a not bad episode of ”Law & Order.” This is a comparison made all the more apt by the fact that Martini’s series hero, District Attorney Paul Madriani, is played by Chris Noth, whom many of us ”L&O” fans consider the best of the police detectives who’ve spun through that series. (Noth’s frequently bullheaded Det. Mike Logan appeared on ”L&O” from 1990 to ’95 and can still be happily nabbed in regular reruns on A&E.)
Moving from cop to lawyer hasn’t lessened Noth’s appeal: He plays Madriani as a combo of his tough ”L&O” character and the sloe eyed smoothie Mr. Big, his role on HBO’s ”Sex and the City.” For the first night of ”The Judge,” however, Noth is obliged to wear a mustache that looks like a stray bit of black carpet pasted to his lip. At the end of May 6’s episode, his colleague and love interest, played by Lolita Davidovich (”Gods and Monsters”), mercifully tells him ”it doesn’t look good on you, and these things matter to a jury,” and, she might have added, ”to a television audience”; at the start of the May 7 installment, the mustache is gone. It’s an odd little plot device, but no odder than the remark made by a judge played by veteran character actor Charles Durning, who notices the missing bit of minirug, and growls, ”You shoulda shaved your skull.” Noth gives a puzzled look that communicates the ”What the??” bafflement viewers may be feeling as well.
If I dwell on small details like this, it’s because ”The Judge” doesn’t have much going for it in its big ones. The titular character is played by Edward James Olmos (”Stand and Deliver”), a judge accused of murdering a young woman. Mick Garris, who also directed the Stephen King minis ”The Stand” and the ABC remake of ”The Shining,” deploys Olmos’ eternally frozen, stoic look well: This guy’s got a secret and he’s dang well not gonna give it up until the miniseries’ second night. To fill the time, there’s a lot of melodramatic gush about Noth and Olmos like, ”You’re both headstrong? this is about justice!” That one is delivered by Sonia Braga (”The Burning Season”), wasted in a small role as Olmos’ wife.
As ”The Judge” revs up its pace, film buffs will want to catch an otherwise pointless cameo by director David Cronenberg as a police detective who takes the stand. There’s more soulfulness emanating from the eyes of the man behind such movies as ”Crash” and ”Dead Ringers” than there is in ”The Judge”’s entire four hours.