After premiering last Tuesday to good ratings, “First Monday” moves to its regularly scheduled time-slot tonight at 9 p.m. on CBS. “JAG” creator Donald Bellisario tries his hand at another law-based show, this time with the Supreme Court. Bursting with a star-studded cast, “First Monday” is a complete dud, failing to generate as much buzz as the cases presented to the high court.
“First Monday” stars Joe Mantegna (“The Rat Pack”) as Justice Joe Novelli, a recently appointed Justice who just happens to be a moderate, thus the deciding vote in an even-handed court. The conservatives, led by Chief Justice Brankin (James Garner, “The Rockford Files”) go on the offensive, hoping to cut off any “liberal” intentions by Novelli on his first day. Meanwhile, the liberal contingent is glad to have a fourth for their Bridge game. When not being “accosted” by his fellow Justices in what they like to call “the Brethren,” Novelli contends with his three clerks Ellie, Jerry and Miguel, each of whom are played in very stereotypical fashion. Ellie (Hedy Burress, “Boston Common”) is the only standout, foregoing feminine wiles and actually using her brain to direct Novelli”s attention to certain cases. Meanwhile, Beavis and Butthead I mean Jerry and Miguel, are too busy pandering to their “other” brain and a game of wills against the Chief Justice”s clerk Julian (Joe Flanigan, “The Other Sister”), a pompous Harvard elitist who is just as devious as his employer.
In the premiere episode, Novelli et al. try to grant a stay of execution for a Death Row inmate in Florida. The glitch in this otherwise predictable case is that during an electrical storm, the juvenile defendant, accused of murdering a 10-year-old girl, was struck by lightening. Still alive, it can therefore be construed that the electric chair would be cruel and unusual punishment. Presenting his case before the Brethren, Novelli is turned down after the Chief uses his ace in the hole. While Novelli will continually be at odds with Brankin, we can only hope that the cases set before the Court aim for more interest and less overwrought drama. Even a minor subplot involving a transvestite seeking asylum in the U.S. became more of a case of definitions than persecution.
While “First Monday” tries explicitly to provide both sides of every case in a noticeable politically correct fashion, it fails to become anything more than clich. At least “The West Wing” has an opinion about issues. Although “First Monday” clearly rips-off the “West Wing”s” walk-and-talk scenes, the hallowed halls of the Supreme Court Building are too dialogue heavy.
The only interesting aspects to litter the show are a misused cast and an innovative use of reality television. While Garner is relegated to using football metaphors for every point he wants to make, Charles Durning (“State and Main”) as Justice Hoskins tools around in his trusty wheelchair, spouting limericks and producing a flask from his robes a little too often. Durning is clearly the standout and the only Justice to provide a little humor to the proceedings. However, his role carries tinges of senility. Mantegna, playing against his usual “mob” roles, forces himself to get through the enormous amounts of dialogue that consume his character, even if the straight-laced schulb provides the morality of a nave do-gooder.
Perhaps because of its success with “Survivor” or the renewed value of CNN debate programs like “Hardball,” “First Monday” expands the fictional show with fact, incorporating unscripted debates on the fictional news-talk program “Curveball.” Hosted by former CNN Supreme Court reporter Charles Bierbauer, “Curveball” will feature guests like Jerry Falwell and Johnnie Cochran, debating issues presented before the fictional Court.
Without a strong leg to stand on, these legal eagles hopefully won”t be gracing our television sets for long. Besides, with the Sally Field-driven “The Court” premiering in March on ABC, “First Mondays” is in for some pretty heavy competition. Bellisario should stick with the Navy until he decides on something original.