Once in Love With Amy

The mother of all clichés: Amy Gray (Amy Brenneman, right) and her meddling mom (Tyne Daly)

Does irony have a gender? Judging Amy, perhaps this season's biggest surprise hit--a consistent Top 15 finisher since its premiere--wouldn't recognize that mood even if Dennis Miller lounged into Amy Gray's courtroom and pretzeled every line into its exact opposite. A classic woman's show, and the kind of socially responsible programming you figured every studio exec had routinely lobbed into the trash years ago, Amy (9:00 p.m., Channel 4) is, as one expects from the classics, stolid, reliable, and hugely predictable.

Imagine the melodramatic predicaments a professional single mother (here, Amy Brenneman), might possibly encounter on the job--self-doubt, a sick daughter on the first day of school, sexist pigs in the DA's office--and check them off, one by one, as they crop up. Yet amid a wasteland of frantically copulating twentysomethings, Amy feels addictive in its low-key manner. The program accepts these ageless clichés and shows you why they became standards in the first place, soldiering through the mawkishness with sincere respect for tradition.

At first derided as a rip-off of the curly-haired-female-professional-steps-off-fast-track shtick that drives the successful if low-aiming Providence, Amy immediately transcended its origins to become one of the most adult programs on the box. Its premiere episode issued a raft of predictable mom tropes from the slow lanes of the burbs--Volvos, the first day at work (who'll eat lunch with me?), and a clinching, celebratory Stevie Wonder tune when the judge is sworn in--but subsequent episodes have driven slightly less worn paths. Still, this isn't the show for anyone in search of head-spinning storytelling novelty. Rest assured that every family blowup will be palliated--and then some--by hour's end.

Devoid of hip urban youth (unless you count Karle Warren, as Brenneman's seven-year-old daughter, thus far not suggested as a frequent downer of lattes), and with nary a male character in a dominant role, Amy rarely struggles for a with-it aura or dramatic effect. Instead, the show offers a low-key ensemble cast running through paces so ageless they might have seemed familiar in Athens. Having jumped the partner track at a Manhattan law firm, judge Amy Gray heads 90 minutes up I-95 to Hartford to work in juvenile court, where she serves as main audience and final authority in cases involving the most intimate relations--parents and children, teens and adults, families and the welfare system. At home she wrestles with the needs of her bright daughter, her imperious mother (a beyond-archetypal Tyne Daly) who is a putatively retired social worker, and her perpetually between-jobs brother (Dan Futterman), who is clearly set up as the gay sibling, but somehow has not yet been revealed as such.

Clichés, of course, but so perfectly formed that seeing them drawn up serves as its own source of pleasure: So this is how it's done. In part, that effortlessness derives from the adroit mother-daughter pairing at the center of the narrative. Probably only a female-run show would dare to present an actor as smart as Amy Brenneman in such a role without wasting time compensating for the supposed genitalia-shriveling effect on male viewers forced to contemplate a woman possibly smarter than they are. (Or perhaps you've failed to catch The World Is Not Enough, which showcases the failure of either the producers or Denise Richards to even bother to imagine how a female nuclear physicist might present herself to the universe.) For that matter, note that the majority of press coverage of the show assures us that Brenneman herself is happily married, lest we worry that the fiction of an attractive, self-sufficient woman should bleed into the world offscreen. Brenneman, who made her name as David Caruso's mobbed-up cop girlfriend on NYPD Blue, attended Harvard herself, and she quite believably conveys the warring social and cultural imperatives that still buffet any woman in this position. Plop a wig on her head and this actress could render so embattled a striver as Hillary Clinton sympathetic and maybe likable.

Even better is Tyne Daly as Judge Gray's eternally meddling mother. Seemingly channeling Bea Arthur's caustic altruism, Daly cannot let pass a single opportunity for instruction, nor allow a day to escape without her intercession somewhere. An incorrigible optimist, she pries as both vocation and avocation, urging her daughter to pull her hair out of her face in public and going to bat in court for troubled children when she sees them being given short shrift. In the process, Daly is never made to seem grotesque or unlovable; she's difficult, mule-headed, intrusive, and yet she still essentially means to do what she can't help seeing as her best to push her daughter to ever greater heights.

Again, compared with similar incarnations of that demon mother appearing these days on movie screens--Susan Sarandon in Anywhere but Here, Janet McTeer in Tumbleweeds, Melanie Griffith in Crazy in Alabama--Daly is the least reduced to caricature, the most endowed with a valid worldview. Would a male-written show have granted her the same opportunity? You don't have to read feminist critic Carol Gilligan to suspect that on one of these series, she would have been saddled with a crotchety old goat of a husband who would balance her acid with his own ornery flavor of love.

But what most powers Amy is emotional verité--a lesson, maybe, for studios hungering for the next trend? As both star and co-executive producer, Brenneman essentially plays her own mother, a member of the first class at Harvard Law that saw fit to include women. (Frederica Brenneman has even served as a creative consultant for the program.) The star cannot, however, be held responsible for the narcissistic title, which reportedly was the pick of a litter of runts provided by naming consultants, beating out my personal favorite, My Mom's a Judge.

Another executive producer, Barbara Hall, by reputation the driving force of the show, uses her recent divorce, single motherhood, and boardroom expertise to inform Amy Gray's experiences. As such, there's more going on here than Douglas Sirk doled out an hour at a time. Most cheeringly, Amy Gray does not pay special tolls for her career. The difficulties of mothering are given their due (what if you take out your workday frustrations on your child?), but we never see her pining away for a man in her life. The male characters serve as either adjuncts to the women (Amy's brothers) or impending threats who cannot appreciate the judge's intellect or presume that they can argue their point by maneuvering her into bed. As in Hall's previous series, I'll Fly Away, female bonding expands to fill the available emotional space, hinting that the world still spins on its axis when men don't run things.

Given that eternal teenage boys like Kevin Williamson seem to have shot their wads, and that professional twentysomethings like David Kelley seem to be hitting creative middle age a decade or so early, perhaps this will be the hot new trend: dramas grounded in women's real, considered experiences. Or perhaps not. More likely are single-professional-with-curly-hair imitators, with Sherry Stringfield heading to the salon and Julia Louis-Dreyfus trying valiantly to convince casting directors she can carry a drama. But whatever the future, on a schedule where this show is followed by the smirky boys' world of what the network trumpets as "Dave and Craig"--that's Letterman and Kilborn for those who'd rather not deal with these cads on a first-name basis--you can't help rooting for whatever blend of feminism and corn Judging Amy finally offers.

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