Kate Walsh, despite starring in comedies in the past, is not thought of as a comedic actress, with years and years of hyper-drama as Dr. Addison Montgomery on Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice as her most standout work. Thankfully, it isn’t jarring at all to see her high on weed brownies and making sex jokes for NBC’s new comedy Bad Judge, but it makes one wish that creator Anne Heche and executive producers Will Farrell and Adam McKay shot for the prestige of Walsh’s other series this year, FX’s Fargo. As it is, Bad Judge is a listless concept held together by amusing jokes and a few solid performances. To reiterate, it’s a new NBC comedy.
Walsh plays Judge Rebecca Wright – and we’re not going to go into the subliminal effects of having a law-breaking law upholder being named Wright – a woman who isn’t approaching a mid-life crisis so much as she is stuck living life at half her age. She shows up late to work because she’s got a hangover and her big clunky van isn’t working properly. She listens to giant headphones (and isn’t the only one) and just wants everyone to think she’s in the now, whether they like her or not. It’s no surprise she got a job where everyone is looking in her direction all day.
Since you can’t have the drugs and the rock ‘n roll without the sex, Rebecca is something of a scoundrel when it comes to getting down and dirty. The pilot has a scene where fornication is interrupted by a pregnancy test falling out of her purse. It’s a contrived situation, sure, but I’ll give Bad Judge credit for not having either character react to it like a normal series would. She (eventually) doesn’t hide why she took the test, and Gary, her on-again sex partner psychologist played by Ryan Hansen, doesn’t freak out, instead calmly saying, “I’m a pretty evolved cat.” The point is, it’s presenting a woman that sleeps around and no one is treating her like a whore. It could be the most progressive thing happening on NBC this fall, if only she wasn’t calling everybody “dude” all the time.
Rebecca’s courtroom deputy sheriff is Tedward Mulray, played with effectively overt comedic energy by Tone Bell. I really liked the scenes with him and Rebecca together, and I think he would do well leading a sitcom with J.B. Smoove (The Millers). Her boss, Judge Hernandez, is played by TV vet Miquel Sandoval, and he’s pretty much the stereotypical authority figure (above an already high-ranking authority figure) who tries to put Rebecca’s life on the path to adult behavior. John Ducey stars as Tom Barlow, the put-upon lawyer whom Rebecca tends to give a hard time.
There are two different ways to look at Bad Judge. If you think of it as a live-action cartoon –something less surreal than Brooklyn Nine-Nine – then you’ll probably get more mileage out of it. The jokes are titter-worthy, but they’re watered-down enough to appeal to just about anyone who would sit down and watch it. (Except perhaps your totally uncool grandma.) In the second episode, Rebecca falls for a fireman who has only read one book in his life, because once you find something you love, there’s no point in looking for anything else. It’s a sentence that could perhaps apply to the salacious Rebecca herself, but it’s about a book that a dumb fireman read over and over again all of his life.
If you’re thinking about this from a purely realistic level, then you’re bound to have problems. The court cases in the first two episodes, in particular, are way over the top. One involves Chris Parnell as a bigamist and the other involves a super-famous pop singer who speaks in hashtags and fills the courtroom with paparazzi. There is no real subtext to these cases, though, beyond giving Rebecca moral high ground for a change – do as I say, not as I…beer! – and a chance to say things like “duck face.” Plus, it’s a lot easier to handle potentially calamitous story points like “a judge drinking and driving” and “a judge causing property damage just because she can get away with it” when you aren't thinking of this as a mirror to our culture. We should be so lucky that Rebecca is a decent judge.
Bad Judge has already had its share of pre-premiere problems, losing its showrunner last month and having to retool its pilot. The series was originally going to include Theodore Barnes’ Robby Shoemaker character throughout the season as a child counterpoint to Rebecca’s behavior, but the retooling meant little Robby’s story ends when the pilot does. I can’t even tell if that narrative choice would have been better or worse, but it probably saves audiences a lot of “What does that [insert sexual term here] mean, Judge?” jokes. I like the jokes that are there already, so let’s hope this first season gives us more of them and finds a way to make them matter.
You have been sentenced to find Bad Judge when it premieres on NBC on Thursday, October 2. And don’t forget, you can find all of this fall’s premieres here.