- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 12, 2002

Americans just didn’t get enough of the U.S. Supreme Court during the 2000 election imbroglio. They are clamoring to know more about the court’s inner workings and the people who run it, from the lowly clerks to the esteemed justices.
Supreme Court fever: It’s sweeping the nation.
Or at least that’s what the TV networks seem to think.
CBS and ABC will both roll out new dramatic series this season designed to take viewers behind the scenes of the highest court, an institution cloaked in mystery until the election crisis made it seem as full of partisan rancor as the rest of the government.
The CBS show “First Monday” becomes the first entry in television’s supreme sweepstakes when it debuts at 9 p.m. Tuesday on WUSA-TV (Channel 9). The show imitates the tone and style of another government drama, NBC’s popular “The West Wing,” but it fails to reach that show’s dramatic heights.
Just as “West Wing” gives us a fictional White House full of idealistic bureaucrats, “First Monday” paints a picture of a Supreme Court where almost everyone gets along, despite their different ideologies.
On this court, before the justices take the bench to hear each case, they get together for a pep talk that always ends with the chief justice’s signature cheer, “Let’s go make history.”
Sound corny? It is. But corniness is one of the charms of “West Wing.” And we are living in a post-ironic age, right?
Joe Mantegna, an Emmy nominee for his work in the TV movies “The Last Don” and “The Rat Pack,” leads a big cast as Joe Novelli, a new justice on the court. Justice Novelli, a political moderate who leans left, has joined a court divided evenly but not bitterly between conservatives and liberals.
The enduring James Garner who has played a city councilman, a sheriff, a senator and even a president during his long career gets to play a chief justice here. His Thomas Brankin is a conservative who frets about Justice Novelli’s arrival but respects the newcomer’s principles.
The first episode opens on the first Monday of October, when the Supreme Court begins its annual session. (Hence the series title.) Justice Novelli arrives at work dressed in his suit and tie but still wearing his bedroom slippers, even though he earlier insisted to his wife and children that he wasn’t nervous about his new job.
The new justice soon faces his first quandary: whether to grant a stay of execution to an 18-year-old man convicted of killing a young girl. While awaiting electrocution on death row, the teen-ager survives a freak lightning strike, but is still pronounced fit for execution.
Justice Novelli wrestles with the case. Does proceeding with the execution constitute cruel and unusual punishment? As one of the justice’s aides asks, “If God couldn’t electrocute [the youth], why should the state?”
Viewers learn through flashbacks that the teen, who has an IQ of 70, killed the girl by accident. Of course, this information comes to light at the eleventh hour, but the episode doesn’t take the predictable way out.
Like Justice Novelli, “First Monday” has a liberal bent, but the show doesn’t demonize its conservative characters. Chief Justice Brankin doesn’t share Justice Novelli’s political views, but the show portrays him as a friendly antagonist.
That may be the way folks want their politics in real life, but it doesn’t necessarily make for compelling television.
When partisanship does pop up on the show, it’s used to create romantic tension between two of Justice Novelli’s attractive clerks: liberal Ellie and conservative Miguel.
Future episodes of “First Monday” will feature abortion, polygamy and gun control cases, making the show another issue-of-the-week TV drama.
After the first episode of “First Monday” airs Tuesday, the show will move to its regular time slot, Fridays at 9 p.m., on Jan. 18. Will viewers really want to come home after a long workweek to watch the big issues being debated?
The short-lived David E. Kelley drama “Picket Fences” featured some of television’s most provocative courtroom scenes, but it struggled on CBS on Friday nights during the early 1990s and never really found an audience.
“First Monday” also will face competition soon from ABC’s “The Court,” starring Sally Field as you guessed it a left-leaning justice. It is expected to debut in March.
One gimmick that may help distinguish “First Monday” is “Curveball,” a public affairs TV show that the characters routinely watch. Charles Bierbauer, a former CNN reporter who covered the Supreme Court, plays himself as the host of “Curveball.”
“Curveball” is a lot like the real-life CNBC show “Hardball,” minus the shouting. Mr. Bierbauer never looks as though he’s about to pop a vein, and the real-life pundits who appear as themselves on the fictional news show (in one episode it’s the Rev. Jerry Falwell and liberal lawyer Gloria Allred) never raise their voices to make a point.
Even if we never have a real-life Supreme Court as noble as the one on “First Monday,” can we at least have some talking head shows as polite as “Curveball”?

WHAT: “First Monday”
WHERE: WUSA-TV (Channel 9)
WHEN: Debuts 9 p.m. Tuesday (regularly airs 9 p.m. Fridays)

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