Here Comes The Judge

Amy Brenneman, 35, spent most of her 20s trying to prove that she wasn't anything like her mother. Frederica Brenneman, a superior-court judge in Hartford, Conn., is a formidable person--one of the first women at Harvard Law and only the second female judge in Connecticut. After college, when Amy went home between stints in the theater (annual income: $10,000), she was confronted with one question: "When are you going to law school?" How about never? But today, as the star and executive producer of "Judging Amy," Brenneman dons judge's robes every week, just like her mom. She works in a facsimile of Hartford's courthouse, built to look like the one her mom works in. "My mother was such a trailblazer," she says. "But what does the daughter of a trailblazer do? What other trails are there to blaze?"

Brenneman has clearly found a trail of her own. In a TV landscape dominated by adolescents and their hyperarticulated Clearasil moments, the quiet, unhyped "Judging Amy" has become this season's highest-rated new drama and its most unexpected hit. Brenneman came up with the idea while celebrating her mother's birthday, and sold it to CBS. Amy Gray is a freshly divorced Manhattan refugee who moves back to her mom's (Tyne Daly) house in Hartford, 6-year-old daughter in tow. By showcasing three generations of women under one roof, CBS has landed itself a classic multigenerational hit. Of "Amy's" 15.5 million, mostly female viewers, roughly half are 35 to 54, and the other half, older than 55. "It's a perfect example of our strategy," says CBS chief Leslie Moonves. "We maintain our core audience with Tyne and attract a younger audience with Amy."

The price of commercial time during "Amy" has skyrocketed. From the surprise success of NBC's "Providence" to that of the revenge flick "Double Jeopardy," women over 35 are proving that their loyalty is worth just as much as any teen's. New ventures like Oxygen, iVillage and More magazine are targeting women starved for entertainment they can relate to. CBS is overjoyed to be feeding them, but no one is more surprised than Brenneman herself. "We didn't think our pilot would get made, we didn't think we'd be on the air, we thought 'Once and Again' was gonna kick our butt," she says.

What makes "Judging Amy" so distinct from the usual network fare is that it is driven by strong women--on both sides of the camera. "We make a lot of jokes about estrogen power," says executive producer Barbara Hall. "We're telling women's stories here. When men write for women, they just don't sound like women." But that's not to say there's a lot of hugging or happy tears or even female bonding on this show. Sure, there are lots of comfy kitchen scenes bathed in honey-gold New England light, but the show never resorts to the easy cliche or the cheap satisfactions of a sappy moment.

Unlike most TV characters, who are happy and boring and nice, who spring unscathed by life from one contrived moment to another, the people in "Judging Amy" have long, complex histories that unravel bit by bit each week. Amy Gray is at once vulnerable and self-righteous. Mom Maxine is big-hearted, irritable and wise. Brother Vincent (Dan Futterman) is a slacker would-be novelist full of wit and self-loathing, with a nervous breakdown in his past. The poignant moments in this family come from mixed signals and loaded barbs, and the humor that pops up in unexpected places. "Gramma, what is 'anorexia'?" the 6-year-old asks, wide-eyed. "It is a disease women get from reading magazines," Maxine answers.

Brenneman's family is not the only one on display here. Hall agreed to write the show when she realized it "was almost exactly like my life"; she had just taken a year off to recover from her divorce. "I had started my life over in a new city. I was a single mother working in a male-dominated profession. I knew how to tell this story." Her 7-year-old, in fact, plays young Amy in the opening credits. And Hall plucks dialogue right out of her own mouth. One day Hall said to her daughter, "Your opinions are not as fascinating as you think they are." Soon enough, Maxine used the line on her granddaughter.

"Judging Amy" has been Brenneman's most personal project--and the first time she's been allowed to lighten up on screen. Catapulting to fame as the flesh-baring, drug-addled cop on "NYPD Blue," she went on to play the wounded in Michael Mann's "Heat" and Neil LaBute's "Your Friends and Neighbors." Everyone who meets Brenneman is always shocked to find a cheerful and rowdy free spirit. "My battle cry with 'Judging Amy' was, just make it funny!" she says.

But most important, what does Mom think? Frederica Brenneman, also the show's legal consultant, isn't giving interviews--but her daughter gets copious notes. "She says, 'This wouldn't happen, this is ridiculous,' she has her opinions. We incorporate some of them." Brenneman smiles. She's the boss now, and in theory she can do whatever she likes. But what she knows, perhaps better than most, is this: daughters, no matter how circuitous the route, will always end up stepping into their mothers' shoes.