"Night Court" as a drama.
That could be the pitch used to sell A&E on its first original weekly drama series, "100 Centre St.," debuting tomorrow at 9 p.m.
Setting and emphasis on judges aside, "Centre St." has little in common with the '80s-era NBC sitcom. A&E's series is a sober, thoughtful look at New York's night courts and the people who work there: judges, lawyers and the accused.
"Centre St." breaks little new dramatic ground, it busts no taboos (this is no "Sopranos" or "Queer as Folk"), but it is a solid drama with strong performances by series leads Alan Arkin and LaTanya Richardson.
Arkin stars as Joe Rifkin, better known as "Let 'Em Go Joe," a compassionate, understanding judge with a bleeding heart. Richardson plays Attallah Sims (a.k.a. Attallah the Hun), a by-the-book conservative judge who follows the rule of law, circumstances be damned.
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"100 Centre St."
When: 9 p.m. tomorrow on A&E.
Starring: Alan Arkin, LaTanya Richardson
In light of all the hateful rhetoric heard spewing from conservatives and liberals following the election debacle last month, it's refreshing to see that despite their political and philosophical differences, Rifkin and Sims are good friends on "Centre St." They dine together, gently rib one another and are each other's biggest supporters. They're also the heart and soul of this series. The fine performances Arkin and Richardson deliver make "Centre St." rise above the pedestrian, especially in tomorrow's two-hour pilot.
Written and directed by series executive producer/creator Sideny Lumet ("Serpico," "12 Angry Men," "Dog Day Afternoon," "Network"), the pilot episode is surprisingly effective at introducing the show's main characters.
So often pilots are clunky affairs, with character introductions made clumsily. "Centre St." benefits from a fairly small primary cast and it wisely waits to explore the character of defense attorney Ramon Rodriguez (Manny Perez) until next week's episode.
Tomorrow's premiere concentrates on the judges and two assistant district attorneys, newcomer Cynthia Bennington (Paula Devicq from "Party of Five") and veteran -- at six months on the job -- Bobby Esposito (Joseph Lyle Taylor).
She's a flustered rich girl trying to get out from under daddy's thumb. He's got a junkie brother who asks him to delete a criminal record. The pat predictability of this story is the only blatant misstep in the "Centre St." pilot. Again in next week's episode, a domestic story rehashes well trod dramatic ground.
"Centre St." is at its best when it concentrates on the application of law and how human fallibility plays into that. The premiere's primary plot concerns a perp who gets a lenient sentence from Rifkin and the ramifications that follow. It's surprising and leads to soul searching on both the part of the show's characters and viewers.
If you tune in for "Centre St.," be prepared for subdued drama. It's not glitzy and colorful like TNT's "Bull" and it's far more somber than even ABC's "The Practice." "Centre St." is a particularly quiet show. Music is used sparingly, sound effects are virtually non-existent. It takes some getting used to in this era of sensory overload, but it works.
Tonally, "Centre St." reminded me of ABC's "Gideon's Crossing." Of the two, "Centre St." is easily the better series. Structurally, it better integrates the leads -- Arkin and Richardson -- with the supporting cast. And the "Centre St." characters are far more interesting than those on "Gideon's."
Next week's "Centre St." explores the consequences of an attorney failing to do his best on behalf of a client and how even though the law is served, justice might not be.
"Night Court" this isn't, but "Centre St." offers a slightly different take on the legal profession. It's different enough to make it worth watching.
You can reach Rob Owen at email@example.com Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.