Judge Shows (part 1) - I Like How You Think, by Tom McAllister

NOTE: This post is part 12 in an ongoing series of reviews of syndicated daytime TV shows by Barrelhouse editor Tom McAllister

Do you realize how many judge shows there are? They’ve been around, in one form or another, since the 1940s, first staging reenactments of actual trials and then later in the more familiar form that we all know from shows like People’s Court and Judge Judy, in which a judge acts as an arbitrator in a small-claims dispute and rules in favor of somebody based on minimal evidence and a whole lot of gut feeling. This week, I’m planning on watching 1-3 episodes of each of the following shows:

Judge Judy
America’s Court with Judge Ross
People’s Court
Judge Mathis
Supreme Justice with Judge Karen
Justice for All With Judge Cristina Perez
Divorce Court
Paternity Court
Judge Alex

Depending on your local market, there are up to four more shows that might be airing concurrently with the above nine. Court shows now outnumber traditional daytime talk shows in many markets, and their ratings are holding steadier than just about any daytime subgenre.

By Friday, I’m hoping to have a better handle on why they’re so popular, because right now, after spending some time with Judges Alex, Karen, and Ross, I have to admit I am baffled.

For now, I want to focus on Judge Alex, because I’ve watched three full episodes and have thoroughly investigated his website and Youtube channel and also I’ve called him, repeatedly, to help him make decisions in his cases.

Judge Alex is pretty much a paint-by-numbers affair: quick establishment of judge’s credentials (Alex is a former officer and trial lawyer); plaintiff and defendant stomping into view through a door in the back of the room while a narrator lays out the basic parameters of the case; endless bickering and shouting over one another; some sassy judgery followed by a ruling that may or may not have a legal rationale; and closing statements to the camera.

The disputes are interchangeable and could almost always be solved with a couple minutes of level-headed conversation, and the rulings are trivial. You can watch and try to invest in the conflict, but you will never think about these people ever again. It’s more disposable than most bad TV.

From what I can tell, Alex’s distinguishing characteristic is that he’s less caustic and scolding than many of the other TV judges, who love nothing more than to give paternalistic lectures to strangers about how to live their lives. Alex does a little of that, but he prefers to make bad jokes and be sort of clownish, an adjective I choose partly because of the extraordinary amount of stage makeup he wears. His bailiff, Mason, plays the Kevin Eubanks role, yukking it up in response to every amateurish Alex gag.

I should note, I like Night Court probably more than anyone else in the world likes Night Court, and I can tell you so many things about Mac and Roz and Bull and everyone else, so, look, I appreciate a funny judge. But Judge Alex is not Harry T. Stone. Mason is not Bull. And, more importantly, the plaintiff and defendant are real people who just want someone to listen to them.

As you can see in the above photo of a defendant, not everyone appreciates the judge’s obvious disinterest in even pretending to engage. She has actual money on the line ($900), an actual dispute she wants resolved, and, already having been reduced to appearing on a TV show as legal recourse, she’s being reminded that nobody really cares what happens to her. Her actual concerns are just a joke to be consumed and forgotten within seconds.

But do you want to know whose opinion matters? My opinion matters. I know this because Judge Alex told me so. Well, not Judge Alex, but a proxy told me so, and that counts too.

During every commercial break (there are four breaks during a 30-minute show, with teasers leading into and out of each, so that there really are probably only about fourteen minutes of content per episode), Alex invites viewers to call him at his toll free number to help him decide today’s case. Afterward, he promises, you’ll receive some valuable offers.

So I called him toll-free at 1-800-282-2333.

This is what happens when you call Judge Alex:

An automated female voice answers and thanks you for calling. The volume of this woman’s voice is cranked high enough that when I left my phone on my desk upstairs, I could hear her clearly from my living room. She tells you that you can help the judge decide today’s case, plus you get to find out how the rest of America is voting. Afterward, there will be some valuable offers, and the offers change every day. I’ve called on three consecutive days, and I can tell you the options never change. I can tell you the offers never change.

The options you get are to press 1 to vote for “the person asking for damages” and 2 for “the person defending themselves.” The first time I called, I selected 1 because I felt badly for this mother who had obviously been cheated out of $5000 by her son but who looked like she was going to lose because Judge Alex disapproved of her dating history. This is the response I got:

“The majority of America agrees with you! I like how you think! Your opinion matters to the judge!”

So I was feeling pretty good. I was feeling like I’d struck a blow for justice. And it’s nice to know my opinion matters. It put me in the mood to listen to some valuable offers.

There are eight offers. They appear in different orders, but these are the eight on offer every day, no matter how many times you call or how many different phones you use to call, and I suggest that you can infer many things about the audience of this show from the ads:

  • A scammy-seeming debt reduction service that promises to eliminate all your debt somehow at no cost to you, and seems like exactly the sort of service that will strangle you with its fine print

  • An invitation to “Visit Dolly Parton’s home town!” which is some place in Tennessee and offers no other reason to compel you to visit.

  • Homestead Jewelers is offering discounted sapphire rings in addition to a $15 Wal-Mart voucher if you just press 1 now.

  • A Nebraska travel guide that promises “there’s more to Nebraska than you’ve ever imagined!” and then offers no specifics, which suggests they think very little of my imagination, and then ends with “Who knew there was so much to do in America’s heartland?”

  • A Gerber Life ad telling grandparents they can help their grandchildren get a head start on life.

  • A North Dakota vacation guide that, I swear, starts with this copy: “come to the place where legends are made- North Dakota – land of Teddy Roosevelt!”

  • Two different medical trials for experimental menopause drugs are looking for women aged 40-65 to join in a clinical trial

I chose none of these offers, because I am at least 3 decades too young to be interested in any of them, and also it seems the assumption is that most Judge Alex viewers—or at least the subset of JA viewers who would sincerely call this number—live somewhere in the heartland where they have frequent hot flashes and also suffer from crippling debt. Through this brief, pandering window, I was able to glimpse the target demographic of the show, and it was not a pleasant sight: it was poor people and senior citizens, they were downtrodden and unemployed and probably every month have to decide whether they can go without their prescription meds for a little bit because they can’t afford them. They were lonely all they wanted was this automated voice to tell them that someone valued their opinion. It convinced me there is at least one older man, a widower maybe, a Korean War hero probably, living in rural South Dakota and calling Judge Alex every day to vote on these trials, maybe even aware of the fact that his vote doesn’t actually matter since you can vote any time of day and it is never tethered to a specific episode, and he’s calling because he’s alone and has been forgotten by everyone, and having his 11 AM phone call at least adds some structure to his day. He’s calling because he’s hoping there will be a valuable offer he can actually use, or maybe just to hear a friendly voice. And if he’s like me, he cycles through all of the ads until suddenly a stern automated male voice breaks through and says "Goodbye" and hangs up on him. And maybe he calls back (on a different phone; you cannot vote twice from the same phone in one day, as the cheery voice knows it’s you and even says "welcome back!"), and this time votes differently because he’s reconsidered the evidence, at which point he learns that no matter which way you vote, the majority of America agrees with you and the woman on the phone likes how you think, and would love to give you some valuable offers. And maybe he calls a third time or a fourth, at which point, the male voice begins answering and just says, “you’ve already played today. Goodbye,” and hangs up, the coldness of which seems unnecessary considering this phone line exists solely to scam senior citizens out of their pensions and to offer them a mild comfort during their endless days alone.

Friday: more on the weird class dynamics of TV judges

Tom McAllister is the Barrelhouse Non-fiction Editor. His memoir, "Bury Me in My Jersey," was published in 2010, and his shorter work has appeared in FiveChapters, Black Warrior Review, elimae, and some other places. He has a novel forthcoming from Algonquin in Spring 2016. He co-hosts the Book Fight podcast and you can find him on twitter @t_mcallister.