Poor Kate Walsh. The brilliant comedian and fantastic actress continues to get wasted on television shows that are either far beneath her skills, or incredibly short-lived. She first hit the TV radar in a big way with Grey’s Anatomy, where she was almost instantly cast as the bad guy despite the fact that she was the one being cheated on — that’s what happens when the other woman and your partner are the leads on a television show. Then she moved over to the melodramatic Private Practice, which had a good run, but didn’t do much to show off her abilities. As Dr. Addison Montgomery, she was locked into a role that often felt rather stilted, and, as usual with Shonda Rhimes shows, she was trapped in what felt like a never-ending cycle of sex, scandal, and cheating; since apparently Shonda’s female leads are incapable of having tame sex lives. (I know, I know, they don’t make for interesting television.)
This season, Walsh cropped up again on NBC’s Bad Judge, a show plagued with problems almost from the start, when its showrunner bailed thanks to “creative differences” and it was unfairly positioned against ABC’s formidable Thursday night lineup — which, naturally, includes the full range of Shonda Rhimes productions. It’s quite difficult to make much of a ratings dent when you’re facing off with Scandal, Grey’s Anatomy, and How to Get Away with Murder. Almost immediately, NBC dropped the show, and while it will finish out its 13 episode season, that’s the end for Judge Rebecca Wright.
Make no mistake; Bad Judge was hardly a pinnacle of modern television. The show revolves around a party girl judge who in many ways seems trapped in her college years, her bailiff (Tone Bell as Tedward Muiray), the psychiatrist who acts as occasional expert witness and part-time lover (Dr. Gary Boyd, played by Ryan Hansen), and supporting cast like a cat-loving stenographer, a tough-nosed prosecutor, and the overbearing Judge Hernandez.
However, Bad Judge does two very important things. The first is, put simply, entertaining people. The show is funny, with the occasional snappy one-liners, ridiculous plots, and general silliness. It’s not always right on the mark and sometimes the content of individual episodes leaves a bit to be desired, but it is funny. The interactions between Walsh and Bell are hilariously well-played, and the dynamic between Wright and Boyd is interesting to watch unfold.
More critically, though, Bad Judge takes on some important gender dynamics. Wright is an accomplished and skilled professional with an excellent record; she graduated with distinction from law school and worked her way through the ranks to take a seat on the bench. She was appointed because she’s good at her job, and her party-girl aspect after work isn’t really relevant in the courtroom. It’s a shift from the way women legal professionals are depicted in pop culture, and notably, Wright isn’t shamed for the way she behaves, nor does the show suggest at any point that she’s unfit to work simply because of who she is.
There’s more than that to recommended Bad Judge; Walsh has casual sex and it’s treated as perfectly reasonable and normal, she occasionally gets stoned and frequently drinks, and she is, as advertised, ‘bad,’ but the show pokes fun at the notion of being bad and what it means. While she might be defined socially as bad, Bad Judge isn’t about judging (so to speak) Judge Wright for her personal life, but about depicting her as a whole person and a capable woman.
Characters like her are typically seen on the other side of the bar, or they’re passing supporting cast used as foils for other more serious people (think of Alex in Grey’s Anatomy, often condemned and sneered at because of his history of casual sex and less serious behaviour). They’re certainly not treated as respected professional women — and when women like Wright are put in positions of power and respect, activities like hers are used as evidence of a decline and fall. Instead, Wright is her own person, capable of managing her personal and professional lives and keeping them well balanced.
It creates a refreshing and rather delightful shift away from traditional television and pop culture, where women are punished for falling outside very narrow norms. That’s what makes Bad Judge so fantastic, and it’s probably a major contributor to why it got poor ratings. Even taking into account issues like time delayed viewing, Bad Judge never got a following, and it may be in part because people didn’t like seeing a woman in power who, bluntly, didn’t really care about playing a prescribed media-friendly role.
The loss of such a character is a blow to pop culture, and it’s a shame to see Walsh yet again cut loose in the television landscape. It’s an especially big problem for an actress nearing 50, as roles over 50 tend to be limited in Hollywood, where older men are welcomed into a diverse array of choices, while women are locked into very restricted options. Walsh doesn’t deserve to be shut away in the closet, yet that’s exactly what may happen as producers and casting directors focus on a crop of younger women perceived as more sexually and visually appealing.
Photo by Brian Turner, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license