‘First Monday’: Even better than the real thing

BY KEN WALCZAK

It’s been a tough year for Erin Bernstein. My good friend, the RECORD photographer, has had to suffer immensely, as one major media outlet after another has scandalously appropriated her ideas and then developed them into profitable cultural products, without awarding her a penny for her creative troubles. First, Erin had to suffer the terrible indignity of paying to sit through someone else’s film version of Fellowship of the Ring. Bringing Tolkien to the screen had been Erin’s lifelong dream, not Peter Jackson’s! And now CBS-TV has gotten into the Erin-biting act, nabbing her most inspired primetime-drama concept for their fall lineup. For shame!

Still, one look at First Monday, and you can’t help but sympathize with the Big Eye’s Puffy-esque development strategy. Erin’s idea, after all, is a real winner. Inspired by a year of tutelage by connubial Supreme Court clerks – Profs. Schlanger and Bagenstos – she envisioned a drama that would thrillingly highlight both the political friction and the sexual tension running roughshod through the High Court. For politics, there’s the impassioned, timely debate among members of the Big Nine. And for sex appeal, there’s always the clerks! (I’ll spare you any jokes about eschewing examination of what really goes on “under the robes…”) Yes, sexy Supreme Court clerks. Brilliant, sleep-deprived twenty-somethings working themselves into a lather over pressing, hot-button issues. Who wouldn’t want to watch?

Clearly, CBS was thinking just the same way. Their take on Erin’s idea for a TV-show, First Monday, has both hot-button issues and hot, buttoned-down clerks. And, like Puffy adding Biggie Smalls to a Diana Ross beat, they’ve done Erin Bernstein one better. There’s sexual tension between the clerks, and sexual banter between the Justices!

Let’s start with the clerks: Hedy Burress, who you probably don’t remember as the sultry Nurse Practitioner Money Raspberry Dupree from Gideon’s Crossing, is even sultrier in First Monday as Justice Novelli’s headstrong female law clerk. Show creator Donald P. Bellisario (he of Quantum Leap fame) has apparently laid down the law: Hedy should dominate as many scenes as possible, including several set in the Supreme Court gym, where she can trade in the relatively conservative working duds for tiny Stanford Athletic Dept. T-shirts. And Hedy must attract attention from her co-workers: In last week’s episode, she rejected the advances of two men (one of them the Chief Justice’s bow-tied Bramwellian clerk) in favor of co-clerk Miguel (Randy Vasquez). The two of them seemed on the verge of getting it on – right in the boss’s chambers, no less! – when a pesky ruling on California’s three-strikes law got in their way.

As for the oddly hormonal Justices: To avoid your concerns about old-people ogling, CBS has had to young things up a bit. Camille Saviola plays Justice Esther Weisenberg, and while she’s no sex symbol, she looks about 70 percent as old as Justice Ginsburg, her obvious real-life counterpart. The real babe on the bench is apparently Justice Deborah Szwark (Gail Strickland), who looks closer in age to Sandra Dee in the ’60s than Sandra Day in the ’90s. Last week Justice Szwark was the subject of a remark guaranteed never to have been uttered by one real-life Justice about another, namely that she has “one fine ass.”

Which brings us, happily, to Charles Durning. He plays Justice Henry Hoskins, who in the “Crime & Punishment” episode proves that he is First Monday’s finest character. Justice Hoskins is a wheelchair-bound Southern buffoon, who does no visible work, and also manages to act crude and offensive at every possible opportunity. Besides the ass comment, he also spouts dirty limericks! (“There once was a man named Clark/ Who made love to a woman in the dark …”; “a woman came over/ Breasts like the white cliffs of Dover”) These are guffaw-inducing in and of themselves; they’re downright hilarious if one starts to play guessing games as to which current Justice Hoskins is meant to “represent.”

Of course any attempts to find precise analogues for these fake Supremes quickly proves futile. The Chief (James Garner) has Rehnquist’s politics, but also a sense of humor; the token black Justice (James McEachin) is more Marshall than Thomas, falling in step with Justice Weisenberg’s left-wing votes rather than behind any apparent Scalia analogue. And of course Joe Mantegna’s Justice Novelli is pure dramatic convention: the neophyte whose politics are so dead-center that he is destined to be the swing vote on every major decision. (Incidentally, I can’t help but feel perpetually bad for old Joe, who is called on not only to portray “indecision” for 40-some minutes every week, but also to recite dialogue so poor as to induce immediate and powerful longing for his appearance in another David Mamet film. The guy is just at a loss; case in point: “Don’t be ‘sorry,’ Ellie. Bring me case law,” (with inexplicable accent on the word “law”).

Surprisingly, the relationship between the legal issues grazed over in First Monday and those faced by the actual Supreme Court is not quite so remote. I wouldn’t hold my breath over next week’s major plot-line (Novelli’s family has mob ties!), but episodes to date have dealt with execution of the mentally retarded, parental-consent requirements for abortion and (as mentioned) three-strikes laws for repeat offenders. The stories vary widely in terms of their grounding in actual constitutional law, but most do give accuracy the “old college try” (old law school try?). The few truly painful moments, from a law student’s standpoint, come either from awkward delivery (words clearly uttered with zero knowledge of their actual meaning) or an endless repetition of certain key phrases – cruel and unusual, harmful working conditions, double jeopardy – which are obviously included to give the lay viewer some sort of basic foothold. On the whole, I’m sure a doctor watching an episode of E.R. would experience far more per-capita cringing. Plus, it is rewarding just to hear the verb “to grant cert” used appropriately now and again.

Of course some moments fail so miserably, it’s priceless. I’m thinking here of two in particular. (1) Just before hearing oral arguments for the first time, the Chief declares, “Let’s make some history.” All nine justices gather in a circle, pile their hands on each other, and then raise them triumphantly into the air: “Supreeeeme Court!!” (2) The process for obtaining one of Justice Novelli’s old Cook County opinions requires no fewer than three separate scenes, and coordinated action by four separate people, a telephone and a fax machine. This despite the fact that Novelli’s clerk has the docket number and a perfectly functional computer in front of him. What, was the Supreme Court’s Lexis bill overdue?

But, as I’m sure I’ve made clear, this is all way beside the point. Any overly thorough and accurate treatment of legal work, or legal issues would take away from First Monday’s most important quality; namely that it’s a great show for {ahem} getting drunk to. Too much plot-induced thinking, especially about law, and you just couldn’t drink to it. On a Friday night (where CBS has wisely placed First Monday), a show you can’t drink to unwisely risks blurring the line between study and relaxation, work and play. And while that sort of line-breaking might be OK for some, I have a feeling a lot of regular law students will take beer and dirty limericks any day. And why not? It’s not like we need to prepare for the breakneck pace of Supreme Court clerkships. For those of us pulling solid “Bs,” First Monday is the closest to that gig we’re going to get.

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