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Well, it’s been awhile since the Judge has taken the bench. In the meantime, the mail has piled up, so let’s get to it: Dear Judge Dread: Where have you been? Every time I get a copy of Legal Times, I eagerly turn to Page 54 or so to find your column. I know that if I get to the Court Reporter Directory, I’ve gone too far. But lately, no Dread. What gives? Searchingly, Befuddled in Bethesda Thanks, Befuddled. The Judge has been trapped in a strange parallel universe, that one where, you know, Howie Long and Teri Hatcher seem to be married and live in a futuristic house filled entirely with Radio Shack products. It’s a scary place. The Judge was lucky to get out alive. Dear Judge: You know what I don’t like about you? The way you always talk about yourself in the third person. Who do you think you are? Allen Iverson? Bob Dole? Aggressively yours, Angry in Alexandria Please understand, Angry. The Judge is a literary construct. As such, He doesn’t really exist. I, on the hand, do exist. But if I were to use “I,” I would be me and not be the Judge. Which would simply confuse everyone. Hope that helps. Judge Dread, You know what really makes me laugh? The word “cashew.” It sounds like a sneeze. G.W. Bush Crawford, Texas Best of luck in your new endeavor, Sir. So, what did the Judge miss while on his sabbatical? Basically the entire holiday movie season. Which means the Judge doesn’t get to review “Grinch,” or “Family Man,” or “Traffic,” or that movie where Russell Crowe had an affair with Meg Ryan or that other indie film with, you know, that woman from “Primal Fear,” the blonde? Sorta cute, but a bit harsh, like she could dump wine in your lap in a crowded restaurant. Sometimes the Judge likes that sort of thing, but other times, it’s just … Oh, sorry. What was the Judge saying? Now, then, it’s January, when movie studios foist their cannon fodder on a film-weary public, where you get movies like that Julia Stiles thing where she dances in the ‘hood or whatever or that Brit film by Madonna’s husband with Brad Pitt doing some stupid accent. Not going there. Can’t do it. That leaves television. But to find spanking new programming worth reviewing, we have to reach down, w-a-a-y down (say it like a Baptist preacher), into the depths of television, past the network programs, past FOX, past the more, oh, let’s say, visible cable networks like ESPN and HBO, into the dark recesses of the higher-numbered channels of your cable provider. It isn’t pretty here, in the dankest corner of the TV universe. Put another way, if, say, something like “The West Wing” is the Carnegie Hall of weekly drama series, then A&E’s “100 Centre Street” would be the Nick’s Hawaiian Papaya Lounge at the Ballston Holiday Inn of drama series. (“100 Centre Street” premiered on Jan. 15 and will run on Mondays.) A&E is best known for the show “Biography” as well as providing a foster home for unwanted TV orphans like “Simon and Simon.” But “100 Centre Street” is the network’s (and we use that term advisedly) attempt to break into the hard-hitting, streetwise urban drama market, telling the story of a Manhattan evening court and the hearts-on-their-sleeve judges and harried prosecutors who work there. These protectors of the public, when not subject to the pressing weight of their own all-too-human weaknesses, must navigate the rampant politics and corruption that is New York City. Sound familiar? Of course, it is. For one thing, it sounds like every Sidney Lumet movie ever made, from “Serpico” to “Prince of the City” to “Q&A” to “Night Falls on Manhattan.” No small coincidence then that the storied Lumet is the creator and executive producer of this series. And, unfortunately, it all feels too much like a movie you’ve seen before. You know, the kind of movie that looks great in the video store, featuring legendary actors like Al Pacino in dramatic situations, and you get home and start watching and five minutes later your girlfriend has fallen asleep and you find yourself switching over to the NBA on TNT. Then you switch back, saying, “I’ve just gotta power through this. This is a good movie. I’ll be a better person for watching this.” And then you’re wondering if Kobe is dunking (he is), and you switch back and you never see the end of the movie. At the center of “Centre Street” is liberal city court judge Joseph Rifkind (Alan Arkin, exiled to cable), the kind of lefty judge they don’t make anymore. Rifkind’s nickname, which we are told with a hammer’s subtlety, is “Let ‘Em Go, Joe.” Unlike Ronnie White, Rifkind really is Soft on Crime. Rifkind is a self-described left-wing, Jewish, former flower child of the ’60s and a former NYC cop, perhaps the most unique combination of stereotypical elements in dramatic television history. Too bad he isn’t gay. It would have been perfect. The judge presides over night court. Also on the job is newly crowned Assistant District Attorney Cynthia Bennington (“of Bennington College,” we are told). Bennington, played by Paula Devicq of “Party of Five” (and the Judge is so sorry that he knows that), could work for the gigantic midtown megafirm headed by her squirrelly father, but she wants more from life. “I don’t want contracts!” she cries in argument with her father during the premiere episode. “I don’t want mergers and acquisitions!” Cynthia, of course, looks like a runway model with her flowing blonde hair and short skirts, so it is no wonder that randy ADA Bobby Esposito (Joseph Lyle Taylor) gets his 240-20s in a clinch the minute he lays eyes on her. (There’s lots of authentic court jargon like “This is a 240-20, and that’s six months max, Your Honor.”) Taylor is a perfect Sidney Lumet actor, as he appears to be channeling both Pacino and Andy Garcia at the same time. He moves like Pacino, but he sounds like Garcia. It’s really quite a feat. Bobby, though, has problems, familiar problems, of his own. Because this is a big city urban drama and Bobby is Italian, Bobby must have: a) a mob connection b) family trouble Bobby is from the wrong side of the river, from Brooklyn. His biography on the A&E Web site tells us that Bobby’s legal education was paid for with “money from the mob.” Moreover, he has, of course, a no-good brother, Frank. Bobby’s no-good brother is a trader on “the Street,” seems to have a wee bit of a cocaine problem, and looks like he just stumbled in off the set of 1988′s “Bright Lights, Big City.” Frank’s in some trouble with the law, and Bobby is asked by his ethnic-sounding father to help make it go away. Bobby resists. “He’ll go down,” Bobby tells his dad, doing his best Pacino/Garcia. “The only question is how many of us he’s gonna take with him.” Bobby is faced with a moral dilemma. The Judge won’t disclose how it is resolved, but let’s just say that by the end of the episode, Bobby has learned a valuable — if painful — lesson. Meanwhile, Easy Judge Rifkind has problems of his own. Pinko that he is, he’s allowed a kid charged with jumping a subway turnstile to go free, and that kid has turned around and shot a cop. (And, by the way, the cop happens to be the daughter of Rifkind’s former partner, who, amazingly, forgives Rifkind with the throwaway line, “Cops die,” and then takes Rifkind to the funeral home with him!) The media goes crazy. Rifkind’s face ends up on the cover of the city tabloids and the court’s chief administrative judge curses him, using real movie expletives. (This is what separates your basic cable drama from its more refined network folk.) This is portrayed as a career-ending mistake by Rifkind, suggesting that all criminal court judges should just assume that teen-age turnstile-jumpers are just cop killers waiting to happen. Rifkind finds some sympathy, though, from fellow judge Attallah Sims (LaTanya Richardson), a by-the-book, tough-on-crime judge so bad-ass that she goes by the nickname of … of … Oh, come on. Attallah the Hun! What, you didn’t see that coming? Just like Attallah’s monicker, the surprises on “100 Centre Street” are like the No. 42 bus. You feel lucky if they show up at all. Maybe Attalah the Hun will do us all a favor and give this show the death sentence. Judge Dread presides over the toughest court of all: The Court of Public Opinion. He had several Top 40 hits in the 1980s under the name “Rick Astley.”

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