Judge Dread

Not the people's court? Judge Judy Scheindlin

And they said minimalism was just a writing-workshop fad. Judge Judy (4:00 and 4:30 p.m. weekdays on KSTP-TV, Channel 5), now the nation's most popular syndicated program, and its more homespun imitator, Judge Joe Brown (2:00 p.m. weekdays on KMWB-TV, Channel 23), present the longest, saddest minimalist epic I've ever seen. It's all there: the sad-sack litigants, imprisoned in the here-and-now by cases where they both get paid but everybody loses (a producers' fund finances any judgments reached); the tawdry tangles of love and desire among the unlovely; and most of all, the language of defeat, a curiously fluid blend of smart-mouth wit and malapropism, and heartfelt pain. It's anguishing and irresistible and horrible all at once, a sequence of real-time road accidents you can watch unfold day after day, secure in the certainty that each and every time, the driver won't pull out of that skid.

As best I can tell, the shows' protagonists are indistinguishable. They drive short-distance truck routes, tend bar part time, model lingerie into their 40s, languish forever in school--an encyclopedia of Jim Thompson characters living out their bleak destinies. Even victory feels like a tiny step up in the deep valley of failure, a few dollars crammed into a thinning billfold. Judge Joe takes on a grad student whose car got repossessed when she fell behind on her payments; Judy listens to a mullet-headed couple charge the ten-year-old next door with breaking their car's taillight. Joe helps a strapped mom recover child-care expenses from her lazy-ass ex; Judy recovers a woman's possessions in exchange for the rent she owes on the storage locker she once shared. And so it goes, thousands of equally uninvolving, horrendously detailed ledgers recording friendships ruptured, love gone bad.

In the 1930s, populists instructed us to trust some mythical construct called "the people": The little guy was sure to give it to you straight. "The people, yes!" Carl Sandburg pounded his chest and bellowed, sure of what he would find when he took America's pulse. But in the post-Springer media, this is what we hear when we hearken to the crowd: a babel of failure, the sound of consumer-debt bankruptcies and good jobs moving elsewhere--expounded at numbing length. In the televised realm, these little guys never shut up, never seem much concerned with anything more than getting back the $432 or $576 (always the most precise decanting of injustice) due them. The people, no.

Listen to their voices, a hum of inarticulate pain recounting intimate cruelties:


I had my own place. I opened my house up to his brother and his brother's girlfriend, and their baby. My house was destroyed. They took complete advantage of me. I've had things missing. I'm still missing a VCR. He gave my brother one of my televisions without asking me....He has sold a lot of my belongings without permission, then promised to buy me new things. He never did that, either.

That's a mistreated girlfriend, from Judy. (She gets her money back, but what about her optimism?) Every unhappy family twists the knife with the same skill:


We didn't want to take the [credit] card away from them because, yes, they were having financial problems...bankruptcy in '87, and then they were on welfare in '89, '91, '92, '94. We wanted to help them; I didn't want them to end up like Charles's first family.


Much of the best material comes in the postmortem, when each side gets to pretend he or she loved the whipping Judy just dealt out. "Never hooked up with something like that. She's bad news," recalls one deadbeat of the old girlfriend who got him to pay up. "She ended up meeting this clown over here [points thumb at new boyfriend] when we were going [out], and she left me for him....It's all good, though."

In the "courtroom," there's only so much of this Judy can take before she's off, erupting from speech to snarl: You can actually hear when she jumps to all caps on the screen in her head. In comparison to Judy's Noo Yawk squawks, Judge Joe favors a more down-home flavor: "You're gonna get caught up the creek, son. You're being trifling and not taking care of your business." But since Joe's métier is the imparting of wisdom, he seems more inclined to tease with some token listening before putting the miscreants in their place. As a result, he often gets better lines out of his litigants.


Judge Joe: "Why didn't you exercise visitation rights by having him meet you someplace? Do you have a problem with that?"

Plaintiff: "I have no problem with that. But that would require him to get out of bed and drive somewhere."


So it's sad and it's depressing and it's pathetic. And it's ubiquitous: Joining Judy and Joe on the television bench are Mills Lane, Ed Koch (The People's Court), Greg Mathis, and Mablean Ephriam (Divorce Court) for a staggering sum of five hours of courtroom melodrama a day. Why do so many of us watch so avidly? How can we?

The obvious answer is that we respond to Judy's yelling, just as we respond to the moral certainties of her radio counterpart Dr. Laura. In many ways these two beacons of cultural authority occupy the same universe, one that is harsh, punitive, and resplendent with simple truths. Judy is our superego, our conscience, our assurance that the guilty will be punished somewhere down the road. We could probably tie her rise to the Clinton impeachment without troubling too much--she is its counterweight, its compensation for our well-documented desire to let him get away with it. If only Judy had lectured him for a while...

Don't believe it. The scariest, and least remarked-upon, aspect of "Judy justice" is its essential authoritarianism. Judy serves as judge, jury, therapist, prosecutor, defense attorney, or impartial arbiter as the mood takes her, changing roles whenever she tires of taking any particular side. As in any show trial, facts are essentially irrelevant. Instead, following in the footsteps of the old People's Court, where kissing up to Wapner more or less guaranteed success, deportment is all. But here the stakes are even lower. The barest proof of arbitrational competence--the retention of canceled checks, for instance--offers cause for celebration: It's as if we're a nation of such dolts that we don't deserve any better. Joe hints at slightly more reason, but even in his court arbitrary authority rules the day.

What we really like about Judy, it seems, is her total and complete domination of us, since the television-watching "We" are apparently low-life, alimony-shirking, no-receipt-having, beer-guzzling dumb-asses who need to be reminded, again and again, of our most basic duties toward one another. It's a weirdly elementary-school kind of authoritarianism in which we all sit meekly while Adults Who Know Better instruct us in the business of living. As in elementary school, the real turn-on is when someone else gets it.

So we're humiliated on national television, and we don't even get justice. ("If they're proven wrong, he has the right to make them pay!" Judge Joe's intro blares--promising a kind of small-claims vigilantism.) What I'd really like to see is some former plaintiff sue Judge Judy for intentional infliction of emotional distress, but somehow I doubt that's on the docket. This is a concrete image of abject powerlessness, one made all the more troubling by how many of us seem enchanted by the notion that there's something essentially good and moral about all this--a restoration of order, even. For my $628, Judge Judy is one of the scariest spectacles out there. Being consumed by lions in the Metrodome would be less degrading.

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