11 February 2012

Judging Judy

You’re walking on thin ice, buster.

I’ve spent much of my life trying to shield myself from the debatable pleasures of daytime television, but I have at last come across a show that’s so compelling, I can’t help getting caught up — on those occasions when I do allow myself to watch at all.

Judge Judy, a syndicated courtroom “real-life” extravaganza, has been on the airwaves since 1996. Its star is Judith Sheindlin, a retired judge usually described as “no-nonsense,” who somehow manages to muster the patience to listen every afternoon to at least a couple of small-claims cases. Technically, hers isn’t really a court of law: it’s an arbitral proceeding. But try telling her that.

Whatever you’re selling, she’s not buying.

There’s nothing new about Judge Judy, which isn’t the first such courtroom show in the first place and which has been on the air since 1996. Yet the fact that the show is such a known quantity contributes to its appeal (in the emotional, not the legal, sense). Because day after day, you watch — mesmerized — as people who really ought to know better get themselves into even worse trouble with the implacable Judge.

How can so many people be so stupid, or so un-self-aware? Have they never watched the show, or any of its numerous parodies and imitators? When a party in a case appears in Judge Sheindlin’s courtroom in sloppy clothes, or slouches, or interrupts, you watch much as if it were a horror movie: the suspense is mounting, the axe teeters and wobbles. It’s only a question of when the blade will fall.

They really don’t pay me enough.

For Judge Judy demands respect and good manners — more, perhaps, than she shows to the hapless souls in her courtroom. She’s impatient with long stories and convoluted explanations. Speaking out of turn is a capital offense in her eyes. And when she seizes on an inconsistency — or worse, a display of irresponsibility — she pounces.

But we know these things about her. Why do so many of the litigants — almost all of them, really — believe they can get away with lies and nonsense, or bad manners, or bad posture? Why do so many believe they can outfox her?

How many times do I have to tell you?

This is one of the signal features of the reality-television phenomenon, so far as I have come to understand it through my limited exposure. The contestants or litigants are so supremely unaware of their own abilities and limitations that they set themselves up for disaster. Most often, they wind up humiliated: screeching off-key in an audition for American Idol, voted off the Island, rejected by the celebrity panel of fashionistas, or dismissed by Judge Judy.

For those of us at home, the great satisfaction comes when we think (smugly, of course), “Oh, I would never be so foolish.”

What a wonderful affirmation of our own good sense! Indeed, our superiority! And all because we parked our butts in front of the television set for a few minutes.

Are you kidding me?

Judge Judy’s other great satisfaction, as Patrick observed when he caught me watching the show, derives from the orderliness of the proceedings. There are no motions or delays, and the Judge distills each argument to its essence as quickly as she possibly can.

In our daily lives, we’re not so lucky. We have to put up with people’s nonsense all the time: their excuse-making, their bad choices, and the consequent nuisances that befall us. We can’t shush other people, we can’t tell them how to behave, we can’t stop their bickering. In our daily lives, we’re oppressed by other people’s mess.

Judge Judy sweeps it all away — then moves onto the next case. It’s cathartic. No wonder the show is the most popular daytime program in America today.

Yes, I mean you.

Looking very much like someone who used to play the Pixie on a children’s show in her youth, and nowadays behaving like a very tough yenta, Judge Sheindlin is a marvelous character, a study in contrasts. Look at the dainty white-lace collar on her severe black robe! But don’t be fooled by it.

It’s probably best not to dwell too long on any of the larger issues that loom just off-camera. Are the litigants really representative of a broad spectrum of modern society? Is there some correlation between smallness of mind and smallness of claim? Looking at the positively medieval way Sheindlin’s court operates (arbitrarily, of course), you may be tempted to think there’s something to be said for due process without attorneys or juries. Is there something wrong with a legal system that doesn’t ordinarily resolve disputes in 15 minutes? Or with judges who don’t cut through the crap the way Judge Judy does?

No, better to sit back and watch her put everything — and everyone — in its proper place. She brings order not only to the court but also, as Patrick says, to the universe.

Zip it.

1 comment:

elizadoolittle said...

Well said! I love her!