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Television Reviews: Here comes the judge

Friday, September 17, 1999

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Just as there are comfort foods -- chicken noodle soup, meatloaf -- there are comfort TV shows.

    "Judging Amy"

When: 8 p.m. Sunday on CBS.


NBC's "Providence" is one and CBS's new drama "Judging Amy" is another.

Many will call "Amy" (previewing Sunday at 8 p.m. before moving to its regular time slot Tuesday at 10 p.m.) a "Providence" clone.

True, it's about a daughter who returns to New England (Hartford, Conn., subs for Providence, R.I.) and has to deal with an abrasive mother. In "Amy" the mom is alive and not a chain-smoking ghost -- she smokes just one cigarette per day.

OK, maybe it is a clone, but "Judging Amy" is still the better show. It's not as predictable and it refrains from the "Ally McBeal"-like fantasy sequences that have already grown tired on "Providence."

Amy Brenneman stars in "Judging Amy" as Amy Gray, an attorney turned judge who recently separated from her husband and returned home with her daughter (Karle Warren) to live with her mom, Maxine (Tyne Daly).

Sunday's first episode introduces Amy as a do-gooder in the Sydney Hansen mold.

"There's just one other stupid thing, but I'm embarrassed to say it," Amy says about her reasons for becoming a judge. "I wanted to make a difference."

Cue the violins, grab some tissues and sympathize.

Thankfully, the show realizes it's sappy. Amy herself even admits as much to her daughter, who forgives her, saying, "It's OK, you're nervous." Maybe the makers of "Judging Amy" were nervous, too.

But Sunday's pilot shows potential, especially in exploring Amy's home life. As her mom, Daly is a gruff joy, and Dan Futterman capably plays her offbeat brother, Vincent. A realistic adult brother-sister relationship is rare in prime time, making this one stand out all the more.

Warm and empathetic, Brenneman fits the role as long as you don't think about how similar she is in looks and bearing to Julianna Margulies ("ER"), Kim Delaney ("NYPD Blue") and, of course, Melina Kanakaredes ("Providence").

Tuesday's episode improves on the pilot by showing both Amy and her mom as flawed people, capable of owning up to their mistakes and misjudgments.

While scenes in Amy's courtroom sometimes come across as gimmicky, "Amy's" family drama merits a stay of cancellation.

'A Slight Case of Murder'

TNT has a thing for dark comedies.

    "A Slight Case of Murder"

When: 8 p.m. Sunday on TNT.


Last year the network made "Legalese," this year it's "A Slight Case of Murder" (8 p.m. Sunday) starring William H. Macy as Terry Thorpe, a cable TV movie critic involved in the accidental death of one of the women he's two-timing.

You'd think someone like Thorpe who sees movies for a living would know better than to try to outsmart the cops. It never works. The woman's death was an accident -- she slipped on ice and bonked her head on the floor during a fight with Thorpe -- and he could have saved himself a lot of trouble by 'fessing up in the beginning.

But if he did, we wouldn't have this movie, which is entertaining in a nerve-wracking way after a slow start.

In "A Slight Case of Murder" Thorpe admits he once fell asleep while reviewing a movie, so I should say I got distracted and started flipping through photo albums while screening this made-for-TV movie. But after 45 minutes the story becomes more compelling at the same time Thorpe's cover-ups begin multiplying.

Initially he has to keep the truth from the cops (Adam Arkin and James Pickens Jr.) and his surviving girlfriend (Felicity Huffman, Macy's real-life wife).

Then a private detective (James Cromwell) discovers Thorpe's involvement in the death and blackmails him for photos. There's also a bank heist and Thorpe's ridiculous affair with another character.

This snowball of bad decisions begins gathering steam as it rolls down the hill. An avalanche is the only possible outcome.

Macy co-wrote the screenplay with the film's director, Steven Schachter, and it's clearly tailored to Macy's expertise -- the guilty everyguy you can't help pulling for. Thorpe is similar to Macy's character in "Fargo," only this time he didn't set out to scheme, he makes it up as he goes along.

Fun to watch as always, Macy has his character break the fourth wall and talk to the audience: "I'm the first to admit my moral position is a bit tenuous, what with Laura being dead and all."

These asides are frequently funny, but the timing is poor because characters in too many of the new fall shows do the same thing.

"A Slight Case of Murder" plays with the conventions of film noir, but Macy is the best part of this slight entry in TNT's dark comedy library.

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