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Saturday, February 27, 1999 Published at 10:09 GMT

Judging the TV courtroom

Judge Judy: Grandmother with acid tongue

By BBC News Online Entertainment Correspondent Tom Brook

Move over Jerry Springer and Oprah Winfrey and make way for Judge Judy, the hot phenomenon of American daytime television.

She has been dubbed the "grandmother with the acid tongue", who presides over a TV courtoom and settles petty claims.

Her daily programme, which often beats or ties with the current king and queen of daytime TV Jerry Springer and Oprah Winfrey, is spearheading a revival in the courtroom TV genre.

Four TV judges are currently on the air, and at least one more on the way, but none has the power or stature of Judge Judy.

The full name of this new daytime TV star is Judith Sheindlin, a 55-year old former New York family court judge who looks matronly, but not harsh.

No-nonsense attitude

Her no-nonsense attitude and entertaining style has made her a TV sensation. Judge Judy does not suffer fools gladly.

[ image: Judge Judy: Leading TV courtroom revival]
Judge Judy: Leading TV courtroom revival
She often berates litigants with withering one-liners that extract titters from the courtroom audience.

Judge Judy has been getting a lot of favourable press coverage in recent weeks and I found myself becoming incensed the more I heard about her.

At first sight she struck me as former jurist who was probably making a ton of money by creating entertainment that exploited the petty miseries of others.

The title of her first book Don_t Pee On My Leg and Tell Me It's Raining suggested she was out to get attention, and perhaps not much else.

When I tuned in last week she presided over two cases.

One dealt with an overzealous police officer who claimed he had been defamed by a woman who reported him for inappropriately handcuffing her during a routine traffic stop.

The other fracas that had come before Judge Judy was a war between two well-educated women.

Both regarded one another as neighbours from hell, and had got into a battle involving dustbins and a car being damaged.

Reducing litigation to entertainment

Judy Judy is a great performer with a sharp mind.

She reviewed the complicated and emotionally heated material and quickly clarified the issues. But I was not totally won over.

The inescapable fact is that her show is reducing litigation to entertainment, despite claims from her promoters that she is helping people understand the legal system.

Judge Judy is so potent a force that she is stealing viewers from daytime talk show queens like Roseanne, whose new show has been a ratings disaster.

One possible reason for her success is that the courtroom of Judge Judy provides the certainties and moral absolutes lacking in the real world that audiences are hankering for.

Each case that comes before Judge Judy has a beginning, middle and end. It also has drama and a neat, and seemingly, just resolution.

It is a comforting fantasy for a nation frustrated by the ambiguities of the recent impeachment trial and perceived inefficiencies in the criminal justice system.

Modern-day pillory

There is little doubt, in my mind, that Judge Judy is also providing the modern day equivalent of the pillory, which has always held special appeal for Americans.

Viewers can tune in and enjoy seeing a litigant being humiliated by Judge Judy's keen wit, losing face and, very often, their case.

[ image: Judge Joe Brown: Humiliaties offenders]
Judge Joe Brown: Humiliaties offenders
But Judge Judy is at least better than other tv jurists like Judge Joe Brown, who's the only active judge to have his own TV show.

Judge Brown believes in creative sentencing that is designed to humiliate the offender.

If, for example, he finds someone guilty of stealing, he will allow the wronged party to enter the offenders home and take any household appliance, or other object, of their choosing.

Then there is Judge Mills Lane, who is a TV judge and former boxing referee, who mediates noisy verbal slanging matches and opens each courtroom session with the refrain "Let's Get It On!".

Voyeuristic nation

Oprah Winfrey and Roseanne may be nervously wondering how long will Judge Judy and her copycats reign ?

The comeback of the courtoom television programme shows no signs of waning.

[ image: Judge Joseph Wapner resolves claims between pet owners]
Judge Joseph Wapner resolves claims between pet owners
Even the man who started the courtroom TV genre, Judge Joseph Wapner of The People's Court, which was on the air for 12 years until 1993, is back with Animal Court, in which he resolves claims between pet owners.

Despite all the praise being lavished on Judge Judy and her imitators, her hugely successful courtroom show, like the rest of American daytime TV, still mirrors the country's perverse pathology.

In Judge Judy's world America is a voyeuristic nation transfixed by the petty disputes of others, that willingly defers to a kindly female dominatrix to sort it all out.

Tom Brook writes this regular entertainment column exclusively for BBC News Online.

A well-known BBC entertainment correspondent, Tom has lived in New York and travelled extensively in the US for the past 20 years.

He has reported on cinema throughout his broadcasting career - interviewing most of the top Hollywood stars and directors and attending nearly all the Oscar ceremonies in the past 15 years while keeping up with new trends in mainstream and independent cinema.

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