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We really want to like a television series about the U.S. Supreme Court, don’t we? It says something good about the Inner Civics Student within all of us. With TV crammed with shows like “Special Unit 2″ (they search for monsters, if you didn’t know) and “Blind Date” (ditto), there should be a place for a drama that deals thoughtfully with some of the pressing social issues of our time. Oh, and has room for transvestites, Latin dance bars and a shakedown of a priest. (Well, there has to be some accounting for reality. Come on, we’ve got commercial time to sell here! This ain’t the legitimate theatre!) “First Monday” is what we’ve been given, a drama launched in a world where the success of “The West Wing” has made TV safe for characters who quote the U.S. Code. “First Monday” premiered on Tuesday, Jan. 15, before moving to a regular Friday time slot, something guaranteed to confuse 70 percent of the American public. “First Monday” wants to be “The West Wing” so badly that you almost feel sorry for it. Take a well-known, but over-the-hill, actor (Martin Sheen, James Garner), match him up with some other well-known movie actors (Rob Lowe, Joe Mantegna), throw in some high-minded dialogue filled with words like Constitution and certiorari, add lots of flags and moody lighting, and you figure what could possibly go wrong? But that’s what they said about the DeLorean, Al Gore and macaroni and cheese on a stick. All good ideas, sure. But the secret lies in the execution. And that’s where we start in the first episode of “First Monday.” Convicted Florida murderer Randy Ray Clampett (the Judge didn’t write down his name during the preview, so this will have to do) is facing death by electric chair. Although Randy Ray has been convicted of the strangling death of a young girl during a robbery, and even though his case is on its 97th appeal, something isn’t quite right. Randy Ray’s a teen for one thing. And he seems to have some sort of learning disability, because he talks real slow-like. And he’s kind to everyone. And he had some sort of horrific childhood where his dad locked him up in a box. And the evidence in this case is kind of murky. Even Florida correctional officers, known for their ruminative natures, aren’t convinced. “I don’t know about this one,” one prison guard tells another in a thoughtful, meditative moment. Meanwhile, in Washington, it’s the first day for new Associate Supreme Court Justice Joe Novelli (played by Mantegna, who is best known for appearing in 40 films directed by David Mamet. Has something happened to Mamet? Is he OK? Can someone call?). Novelli is the type of guy who, while receiving a breakfast call from the president, still has time to worry about his teen-age son’s first day at school. Relax, the kid says, “It’s high school, not a Senate confirmation hearing.” Ha ha! This perhaps is our first clue that this might not quite be “The West Wing.” Novelli is off to the storied building at First and Maryland, where he meets his fellow justices for the first time. Most notable is the chief justice, a “staunch conservative” (at least that’s what the press release says. You know, has a conservative ever not been staunch? They go together like “Noriega” and “Panamanian strongman.” And how come no one else is ever a “strongman”? Like, couldn’t Bill Gates be a Microsoftian strongman? Or Donald Rumsfeld be a Pentagonian strongman? Just imagine the news stories: “Pentagonian strongman Donald Rumsfeld said today …” Doesn’t that grab you? What? Oh. Sorry.) OK, back to the subject at hand. Novelli has to deal with staunch conservative Chief Justice Thomas Brankin (Garner), a diehard Oklahoma football fan and chain-smoker. Brankin sits in dark, smoke-filled rooms that seem to be lit from underneath his desk, like an aquarium. And despite CBS’ claim that this show is split right down the ideological middle, one cannot shake the feeling that Brankin is somehow … EVIL. Brankin also has an Evil Clerk doing his bidding. (This marks the first time any TV show in history has ever had an Evil Clerk. Not even “Night Court” had an Evil Clerk.) The Evil Clerk is named Julian (Joe Flanigan), and he wears a bow tie and warns Novelli’s law clerks that they had better play along if they know what’s good for them. Julian is particularly snooty to Novelli’s plucky female clerk Ellie (Hedy Burress), something the Judge didn’t really pick up on, but something the Judge’s co-counsel, a former federal court clerk who was on her third glass of red wine, seemed to understand immediately. Co-counsel: Look at that. Look at how condescending he is to that clerk! That’s how it is, you know! That’s how it is for female clerks! You tell him, Ellie! You go, girl! Judge: You OK? Co-counsel: Sure! Those stupid clerks. Hey, do we have any more of this stuff? Eventually, we’re introduced to the rest of the justices, who might as well be wearing jerseys with “C” and “L” to represent their political persuasion. On the Right are curmudgeony Henry Hoskins (Charles Durning), who’s in a wheelchair and who has a fondness for limericks about ACLU lawyers (yeah, it gets old all right — in about six seconds); steely Michael Bancroft (James Karen), who doesn’t do much but appear vaguely threatening; and the O’Connoresque Deborah Szwark (Gail Strickland). Then on the Left, we have a Bella Abzug-style battle-ax named Esther Weisenberg (Camille Saviola), soft-spoken African-American Justice Jerome Morris (James McEachin), beanpole liberal Brian Chandler (Lyman Ward — best known as Ferris Bueller’s dad), and Theodore Snow (Stephen Markle), who, well, hmmm … let’s just call him David Souter. The Court, then, is split 4-4 and the show’s conceit — and it is a rather large one given today’s wall-to-wall media coverage — is that no one knows where Novelli stands. Both camps are repeatedly grabbing Novelli in spacious Supreme Court hallways and trying to recruit him to their side as if they were sharing a table at the Caucus Room. And it does make the Judge pause and wonder if that is the message television wants to send in the wake of Bush v. Gore. That these justices are out there armed with agendas and are politicking each other on a daily basis. Yes, the Judge realizes this is done in the name of drama. The Supreme Court, when it is, say, wrestling with thorny questions of interstate commerce or carpal tunnel syndrome, doesn’t exactly make for meaty fare. But do the justices in the show really have to do a high school basketball-style cheer in their dressing room before coming out into the chamber? (“Let’s go make history!” Garner declares.) And do they have to be backlit when all nine make their dramatic entrance, making a meandering group of middle-aged lawyers in black robes look like the just-in-time arrival of the Super Friends? If Justice Novelli doesn’t have enough on his plate, he’s got major Clerk Issues. One of his clerks, hot-tempered Miguel Mora (Randy Vasquez), is a conservative who fears he’s been trapped with a liberal judge. While Miguel has been supplied by the show’s writers to provide ideological balance, the running gag during the show’s first two episodes is that Novelli does the opposite of whatever he suggests. This frustrates Miguel greatly. So much so that he hits on an attractive lawyer who, that very day, had argued an immigration asylum case before the high court. (Isn’t this covered in the employee handbook?) He and the lawyer then spend a steamy, unethical night together at a D.C. Latin dance club. The Judge’s co-counsel, who is also a former immigration lawyer, didn’t like that either. Co-counsel: (shouting) No, wait! No! Don’t make the asylum lawyer the bad guy! Judge: Why? Co-counsel: We’re the most serious lawyers of all! Judge: How many glasses of wine is that? Co-counsel: Uh, two. The joke, however, is on Miguel, when the asylum lawyer turns out to be a transvestite. Ha ha! The Judge believes that this once actually happened to a clerk for Justice Felix Frankfurter. Novelli has a difficult dilemma. Does he stay the execution of Randy Ray, the teen-age, learning-disabled, kid-friendly accused murderer with a case built on suspect evidence? This is Hollywood’s idea of a controversial question concerning the death penalty. The Judge wouldn’t dare tell you how it comes out. But the second episode of “First Monday” also promised controversial action ripped right out of today’s newspaper. A North Dakota teen-ager wants an abortion! Her parents don’t! Will Justice Novelli be pro-choice? Pro-life? The Judge was hoping for better things this time. But the second show opens with Justice Novelli being greeted by Ellie, his plucky female clerk. “Would you like a bagel, sir?” Ellie asks. “I’ll be happy to spread it for you!” Uh oh. His wife, during a pensive moment, tells Novelli, “Do you know that I love you, Mr. Justice?” Gulp. But things do improve. Novelli (a Good Catholic, we’re told) goes to Mass, where the priest rails against abortion. Also, Novelli’s daughter has been getting leaned on at school by the nuns. Novelli’s had enough. In true Mamet-like fashion, he walks up to Father Mike after Mass and gives him a quiet working over, threatening to pull his family from the parish if the diocese doesn’t stop messing with his family. Novelli gets even tougher. He has it out with Miguel the clerk, finally telling him he doesn’t have “the balls” to make it at the most prestigious court in the land. Finally. Action! Drama! Tough Talk! Profanity! Everything the Supreme Court is known for. David Mamet would be proud. Now, can we get him to join the writing staff? Judge Dread presides over the toughest court of all: The Court of Public Opinion. He is part-owner of a Washington wine store called “The Supreme Cork.”

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