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Columns
NBC switches gears to miniseries for adults

Sunday, May 06, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Gone are the leprechauns, revisionist Bible epics and special effects. NBC's sole sweeps miniseries has none of the trappings of its recent lowbrow fare.

After lackluster ratings for several fantasy-themed programs, NBC is about to embark on a new course of big-budget, high-quality miniseries intended for adults.

Rather than mucking around with fantastical stories for the whole family, NBC appears to be aiming its future minis - one about an uprising of Jewish survivors in a World War II Warsaw ghetto, another about the parents of gay murder victim Matthew Shepard - to hit the mark of its quality dramas: smart, sophisticated and almost HBO-like, save for the profanity and nudity.

A new executive (Jeff Gaspin from VH1) has been hired to remake NBC's longform programs, and the results will begin to show next season. In the meantime, a law and order-ish miniseries will have to do.

Here comes the judge - "Steve Martini's The Judge," anyway.

Based on the best-selling Martini novel of the same name, "The Judge" is an OK four-hour miniseries that gets better in its second installment tomorrow night.

To set up the notion that Judge Armando Acosta (Edward James Olmos) and lawyer Paul Madriani (Chris Noth) don't get along, the first scene of the miniseries finds Madriani being held in contempt after screaming at the judge when a sentencing doesn't go his client's way. Nothing subtle about that.

But soon Acosta needs Madriani's help. There's corruption in the police department and a grand jury has been seated to investigate. Acosta does some snooping on his own when a sex kitten-ish undercover vice cop (Heidi Mark) promises information on the murder of Acosta's former law clerk who knew too much about the crooked cops.

TV Preview
"The Judge"
When: 9 p.m. today and tomorrow on NBC
Starring:Chris Noth, Edward James Olmos, Lolita Davidovitch

Instead of getting help, Acosta is busted on a trumped-up solicitation charge. The judge takes a swing at the cops who are trying to arrest him, which is absurd. They may be corrupt cops, but it still looks ridiculous to see a respected judge trying to punch them. That kind of thing probably plays better in Martini's books than in a miniseries.

Likewise, the dialogue loses something in the translation and delivery.

Prosecutor Catherine Rosetti (Lolita Davidovitch) almost spits at her boss, state's attorney Coleman Klein (John Terry), when he fires her.

"What is it about you that always smells of raw sewage?" she says.

What is it about dialogue that probably reads OK in a pulpy crime fiction book, but sounds overwrought when heard in a miniseries?

If the solicitation charge wasn't bad enough, Acosta ultimately gets accused in a murder and has to hire Madriani and Rosetti to represent him. But Rosetti doesn't stay on the case long after she leaves fingerprints at the scene of the murder while trying to destroy evidence that could incriminate her brother.

There are several "D'Oh!" scenes like that one, and the whole cops-smuggling-drugs conspiracy story isn't fleshed out. But once Acosta's trial begins (with Charles Durning as the presiding judge), "The Judge" improves thanks to enjoyable courtroom theatrics.

Noth, who gets rid of a cheesy-looking mustache halfway through the miniseries, is especially good in tomorrow's conclusion when he puts Acosta on the stand and treats him as a hostile witness. Part II also includes affecting and believable testimony by the murder victim's young daughter. Only in these scenes does "The Judge" rise to the TV-realistic level of drama seen weekly in "Law & Order" and "The Practice."

NBC's miniseries may become must-see events in the future, but the middling quality of "The Judge" results in this verdict: Unless you're a huge Chris Noth fan - and I hear from such women all the time - there's not enough here to merit four hours of your time.

You can reach Rob Owen at rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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