The two-night courtroom miniseries Steve Martini's The Judge, based on the best-selling novel by the author who's awkwardly wedged into that title, amounts to a four-hour version of a not bad episode of Law & Order. This is a comparison made all the more apt by the fact that Martini's series hero, District Attorney Paul Madriani, is played by Chris Noth, whom many of us L&O fans consider the best of the police detectives who've spun through that series. (Noth's frequently bullheaded Det. Mike Logan appeared on L&O from 1990-95 and can still be happily nabbed in regular reruns on A&E.)
Moving from cop to lawyer hasn't lessened Noth's appeal: He plays Madriani as a combo of his tough L&O character and the sloe-eyed smoothie Mr. Big, his role on HBO's Sex and the City. For the first night of The Judge, however, Noth is obliged to wear a mustache that looks like a stray bit of black carpet pasted to his lip. At the end of May 6's episode, his colleague and love interest, played by Lolita Davidovich (Gods and Monsters), mercifully tells him ''it doesn't look good on you, and these things matter to a jury,'' and, she might have added, to a television audience; at the start of the May 7 installment, the mustache is gone. It's an odd little plot device, but no odder than the remark made by a judge played by veteran character actor Charles Durning, who notices the missing bit of mini-rug, and growls, ''You shoulda shaved your skull.'' Noth gives a puzzled look that communicates the ''What the...?'' bafflement viewers may be feeling as well.
If I dwell on small details like this, it's because The Judge doesn't have much going for it in its big ones. The titular character is played by Edward James Olmos (Stand and Deliver), a judge accused of murdering a young woman. Mick Garris, who also directed the Stephen King minis The Stand and the ABC remake of The Shining, deploys Olmos' eternally frozen, stoic look well: This guy's got a secret and he's dang well not gonna give it up until the miniseries' second night. To fill the time, there's a lot of melodramatic gush about Noth and Olmos like, ''You're both headstrong...this is about justice!'' That one is delivered by Sonia Braga (The Burning Season), wasted in a small role as Olmos' wife.
As The Judge revs up its pace, film buffs will want to catch an otherwise pointless cameo by director David Cronenberg as a police detective who takes the stand. There's more soulfulness emanating from the eyes of the man behind such movies as Crash and Dead Ringers than there is in The Judge's entire four hours.
If Noth hasn't found a character as good as L&O's Mike Logan he tried to revive Logan a few seasons ago in the TV movie Exiled and had a thankless role as Helen Hunt's husband in Cast Away it's because L&O is tough on actors: The series is so good at cementing its regulars in our minds that, for example, it's hard to imagine that L&O detective Jerry Orbach was once an esteemed Broadway song-and-dance man. Yet for all its excellence after a lumpy start, L&O's been having a sleek, swift season it wears out its Assistant District Attorney actresses in record time; Jill Hennessy lasted three seasons, Carey Lowell two, and Angie Harmon, who joined in 1998, just announced that she's fleeing Sam Waterston's severe gaze (to be replaced by Angel's Elisabeth Rohm).
Meanwhile, the L&O spin-off Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, has never found the right tone for its central hook, the investigation of sex-related crimes. Week after week, rape and child-abuse case files plop onto the desks of cop partners Christopher Meloni and Mariska Hargitay, who've apparently been instructed to muster ceaseless reservoirs of righteous indignation. Yes, the crimes are appalling, but it's hard to believe these pros wouldn't either burn out or take a more businesslike approach to their work.
SVU is airing a couple of sweeps episodes with guest stars Oz's
B.D. Wong as a serial-killer catcher, Richard Thomas as a
suspect, Karen Allen as Thomas' wife but the show still seems
like seedy exploitation of our L&O loyalty. The best new
character the show has introduced is Stephanie March's
hard-boiled Asst. DA Cabot, and the SVU writers should take a
lesson from the Steve Martini TV movie and realize that the
minimal-emotion methods of Noth and Olmos -- to say nothing of
SVU's own excellent, underused Ice-T are more effective than
forcing Meloni and Hargitay to look as if every nasty crime is
going to drive them to tears.
Steve Martini's The Judge: B-
Law & Order: A-
Law & Order: SVU: C+