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Monday, May 17, 2021

De Novo: The Brief and Burdened Life of NBC’s “Bad Judge”

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When I was a fourth-grade student at Forest Dale Elementary in Carmel, Indiana, my teacher stopped in the middle of a history lesson to ask me, the only African American student in the class, whether “colored” was still an acceptable term to use.  Clueless (and painfully introverted), I managed to whisper, “Um, I think it’s still ok…,” before spending the rest of the afternoon in a state of internal panic, worried that I had answered incorrectly and brought shame to my race.  Now, more than twenty years later, I can recognize the absurdity of her question, not only because she asked it in the year 1994 (!), but because a nine-year-old child should never have been burdened with speaking on behalf of an entire race of people.

This past week, NBC announced amidst clamor from the Miami-Dade Chapter of the Florida Association for Women Lawyers (FAWL) that it was cancelling its primetime comedy show Bad Judge after just five weeks of airing.  Two weeks earlier, the local FAWL chapter president Deborah Baker sent a letter of complaint to Steve Burke, CEO of NBC, calling for the show’s cancellation because it “depicts a female judge as unethical, lazy, crude, hyper-sexualized, and unfit to hold such an esteemed position of power.”  Baker went on to emphasize:

“In this country, (i) only four of the 112 Justices ever to serve on the Supreme Court have been women; (ii) less than 35% of the active judges sitting on the thirteen federal courts of appeal are women; (iii) only 32% of the active U.S. district court judges are women; and (iv) there are still nine federal district courts around the country where there has never been a female judge.”

To be fair, Bad Judge is not a good show.  Kate Walsh stars as Rebecca Wright, a jurist by day and rebel by night who blithely abuses her judicial power and engages in sundry, highly questionable behavior, not the worst of which is having sex with an expert witness in her chambers before court and waking up hung-over and in need of a pregnancy test.

The show has a fairly diverse supporting cast, most of whom, like Walsh, are far too talented for the sloppy plots they have been given to act out. Stand-up comedian Tone Bell has a regular role as courtroom bailiff Tedward, and Miguel Sandoval plays Judge Hernandez, Wright’s upright, well-meaning boss who believes in Wright’s potential. That said, the show certainly won’t be winning an Image Award anytime soon.  

Nevertheless, the show doesn’t deserve the criticism that its portrayal of a female judge is socially irresponsible.  I say this even as a member of a legal community that is freshly sensitive to the none-too-funny consequences of judicial misconduct. 

The survival rate of new television shows, particularly new comedies, is low enough without the added baggage of heightened social responsibility.  As Bad Judge has shown us, it’s hard to be funny, even with Will Ferrell as an executive producer.  If NBC sticks to its decision to cancel the show, let it be due to the show’s poor ratings or because, as one TV critic put it, the show’s talented actors “should all be on other, better shows.” My hope is that the FAWL chapter’s objection to the show played no part whatsoever in NBC’s decision, and that NBC correctly ignored the criticism that the show’s main character failed to accurately represent a particular population.  A freshman comedy show, like a nine-year-old child, should never be so burdened.

About Roxana 

Roxana Bell is an attorney at Bingham Greenebaum Doll.  She concentrates her practice in the area of management-side representation in labor and employment. She can be reached at rbell@bgdlegal.com.  The opinions expressed are those of the author. Follow Roxana Bell on Twitter.

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